Wednesday, March 30, 2016


beginning at the beginning

Gazing at the mailbox for the past week has not been a fruitless endeavor.  My set is not yet complete; I am still in pursuit of three volumes. The first two pictured below contain reprints of the first four diaries - I ordered these instead of attempting to find inexpensive copies of those early volumes.  What I have thus far I am looking over with great glee, I must say.

I've wanted to read this set for years, YEARS, I'll say it again.  And the time has finally arrived, by my own reckoning.  In his introduction to the first volume, James Lees-Milne writes about the decision to keep and then print his diaries (p.vii):

"I underwent some anguish lest I might be making a fool of myself by recording in print my jejune opinions and, worse still, by exposing the behaviour of certain friends and acquaintances to random obliquy - or even ridicule.... Indeed when I began keeping a diary I never for an instant imagined it might one day be printed."

Lees-Milne continues setting the stage for us:

"By 1942, when the diaries began, I was thirty-three, out of the Army, and back at work with the National Trust.... In 1936 I had been engaged as secretary to the Country Houses (to become the Historic Buildings) Committee of the National Trust.  The preservation of England's historic houses, their architecture, treasures, gardens and parks was a new venture of the Trust.  The committee which I served was distinguished and erudite.  On the outbreak of war the venture went into cold storage.  Country-house owners' minds and energies were absorbed by the war.  Their houses, when not requisitioned for troops, schools, emergency hospitals and institutions, were put under dust-sheets.  But by 1942 owners had a future of a sort to look to, yet how were they to cope with their massive piles and possessions in the brave new world ahead?... Already they were contending with high taxation, lack of domestic staff and the disesteem of the Zeitgeist.  Several returned and many turned to the National Trust for a discussion, if not a solution, of their problems.  This explains how I was largely occupied during the last years of the war and the immediate pot-war years."  (pp. vii-viii)

Dull as ditchwater you say?  Not if you like this sort of thing.  Which I do, very much.  In fact, the first volume of the first diary, Ancestral Voices, begins with two sentences that would feel right at home in the opening paragraph of a Jane Austen novel:

Thursday, 1st January

"West Wycombe Park is a singularly beautiful eighteenth-century house with one shortcoming.  Its principal living-rooms face due north." (p.3)

I have a long quiet evening ahead of me and plan to do nothing with it except read on.  Am I happy?  Ask me.

What a lovely reading project. I purchased nearly every volume(still missing two) from the wonderful lady who ran Cumberland Books? on State Street in Portland, Maine a few years ago, and at a very reasonable price from what I recall. I miss that shop terribly! Lees-Milne is comfort reading for any anglophile. I never found him intentionally or unnecessarily unkind in his assessments of the people he described. The owners of stately homes, down on their luck post-war, were far more sympathetic than I had expected. Anyone who owns an old house can relate to the trials of leaking roofs, outdated plumbing and an empty bank account!
Oh, I can so relate - we are having the roof replaced in May, on this old house... can't even talk about the state of the bank account! But, tales of woe aside, and back to Lees-Milne - I've read the first 100 pages or so of volume one. Initial reaction: so much less snarky than I'd expected. I'm relieved and grateful, and simply loving his writing, thus far. Wish I'd seen the set at Cunningham's! Glad you found them, though. Nancy's shop was a delight. I didn't get there often, but when I did I came away with wonderful things. Thanks for your comment.
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