Frank Kermode

  • Deep Romantic Chasm: Diaries 1979-81 by James Lees-Milne, edited by Michael Bloch
    Murray, 276 pp, £22.50, October 2000, ISBN 0 7195 5608 2
  • A Mingled Measure: Diaries 1953-72 by James Lees-Milne
    Murray, 325 pp, £12.99, October 2000, ISBN 0 7195 5609 0
  • Ancient as the Hills: Diaries 1973-74 by James Lees-Milne
    Murray, 228 pp, £12.99, October 2000, ISBN 0 7195 6200 7

Of the seven volumes of diaries published over the years by James Lees-Milne two have now been reissued as rather grand paperbacks, along with an eighth, a final hardback selection made by Michael Bloch. They all have titles like Ancestral Voices, Caves of Ice, Through Wood and Dale, Midway on the Waves and Prophesying Peace, and it will not escape the notice of the literate public that they are all derived, one with a bit of a spin on it, from ‘Kubla Khan’. This sturdy attachment to Coleridge’s poem is not easy to explain, as Lees-Milne, for all his curious learning, does not pretend to go in for flashing eyes and floating hair, and the chosen titles seem quite irrelevant to the contents of the books. It is known, for Coleridge mentions it, that Byron admired ‘Kubla Khan’ and that Lees-Milne admired Byron, for he makes a point of saying so, but the connection still seems tenuous.

Myself a newcomer to the delights of these diaries, which are thought by some to be addictive, I found other obstacles to understanding. The author clearly has many rich and interesting friends, but often makes a point of not being very interesting himself. He is, he says, an opsimath. It takes one to know one, though I suspect he began to acquire his vast knowledge of grand people and grand houses in early youth. He says he is not ‘a highbrow with intellectual leanings’ but ‘a simple, rather stupid man’. This may have been said only to outbid Elspeth Huxley in a modesty contest, but he could sometimes be genuinely overawed by the company. Arriving at a very grand luncheon party, he saw ‘ten sophisticated guests assembled’ and would have bolted had his wife not been there to steady him. ‘Agoraphobia seizes me on such occasions.’ (Can he have meant quite that?)

A touch of the Prufrocks, perhaps, and a welcome sign of common humanity. Ordinary mortals may suppose that regular frequentation of the multitude of well-born characters mentioned in these books would have eliminated shyness for ever. Many of his women friends are named after counties or important metropolitan districts: Diana Westmoreland, Sally Westminster, Caroline Somerset, Deborah Devonshire. Numerous acquaintances identified in the text by their quite ordinary first names turn out, in the footnotes, to be dukes or earls. Some, by a process of dynastic agglutination, actually have as many as four surnames. One can of course manage with two, but might this not leave one less sure of one’s status?

A principal interest, for me, was to achieve an understanding of the diarist’s social position. A provincial journal (Gloucester Life) described him in 1979 as a ‘Scholar and Gentleman’, but ‘these are two attributes I can make no claim to.’ He is not an aristocrat (‘I have noticed that aristocrats are either like Lord Salisbury, gentle, attentive to their inferiors, courteous, while aware of their superior social status in the world; or provocative and combative and rude like Randolph, Edward Stanley, Nigel Birch and others’) and it seems he is unwilling even to be a gentleman. He notes that Somerset Maugham said that Kipling was ‘not quite a gent’. When Kipling said of somebody, ‘He’s a white man,’ Maugham thought: ‘How I wish, in order to fulfil my preconceptions of him, he would say he was a pukka sahib. “He’s a pukka sahib, all right,” continued Kipling.’ So that rules him out. But Willie’s observations lose authority when one considers that at 79 ‘his face is like a nutcracker carelessly wrapped in parchment.’ To be a truly admired gent it helps to be young and beautiful, a point made several times in these diaries. There are other ways of qualifying; on the authority of Sir Oswald Mosley Hitler is declared to be ‘gentle and gentlemanly. He slipped shyly into a room.’

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