Tuesday, May 24, 2016
of houses and humans
The spring weeks fly by. This past weekend held our first truly summery days - hot sun, shorts, flip-flops, a remote empty beach, desultory watercolors, the full picnic basket, a sense of delicious idleness. Long days filled with what feels like all the time in the world. Most welcome around here, after a month of anxiety about house repairs (chimneys rebuilt and roof re-shingled), all finished now. Except for, of course, the paying of the bills.
But let's not dwell on that. Instead, books! I make progress in the diaries of James Lees-Milne. Am nearing the end of volume six - Ancient as the Hills: Diaries 1973-1974 (John Murray 1997). Many thoughts regarding this and all the previous volumes too, mostly involving people and places.
People: Lees-Milne encounters a fascinating cast of characters, and writes about them at length. Some of my favorite passages and turns of phrase in the diaries are his descriptions of people:
"Mrs. Stirling was bedecked in jewels and gems. When she walks across the room it is like a chandelier which has been let down from the ceiling and, without collapsing, mysteriously manages to move." (Diaries 1942-1945 p.83)
"Grandy Jersey lunched but when alone with me is apt to fall asleep like a large and beautiful dormouse." (Diaries 1946-1949 p.7)
"Mary is as majestic as ever, tall, robust, windswept, exceedingly untidy. Her tweed coat and skirt are stained and torn, and the pockets have holes in them. Her breeding and dignity are impeccable; her views are uncompromising, proud and right. Her humour is unimpaired. She is a splendid creature with a massive soul." (ibid p.93)
"She is still quick as lightning, sharp as a packet of needles and capable of seducing God. She is going to invite me to stay at Donnington, which I rather dread and much look forward to. (Daisy Fellowes; ibid p.253)
"Lunched with that fiend Charles Fry at the Ritz.... He is unchanged - detestable. I really dislike him unreservedly. He is utterly untrustworthy, without conscience, moral scruple, or decency." (ibid p.277)
I could go on, Lees-Milne certainly does. His diaries come across as remarkably even-handed in the praise and blame departments, which I honor him for. Clear-eyed descriptions, as far as I can tell, especially of those he knew well. Speaking of whom, I would recommend these diaries for anyone even remotely interested in the doings of the Mitford family. Lees-Milne went to school with Tom Mitford, who died during the war (hence during the course of these diaries), brother of the famous Mitford sisters. Nancy and Debo make many appearances throughout, along with all the rest. Early on Lees-Milne says, "What a catching disease Mitfordism is!" (Diaries 1942-1945 p.66) He considers Tom his oldest friend and loves the whole family. And yet mentions several times their unkind and often cruel wit, especially Nancy's. As a sidelight on the lives and times of the Mitfords, these diaries are invaluable. Ditto the Nicolsons/Sackville-Wests.
Places: Lees-Milne's work for the National Trust has him visiting houses and their owners all over the countryside, all the time. He says of his preservation work, "... my loyalties are first to the houses, second to the donors, and third to the National Trust. I put the Trust last because it is neither a work of art nor a human being but an abstract thing, a convenience." (ibid p.153) Another reason to honor him - his love for art, in the forms of architecture and its details, houses and their contents, especially in the face of war, destruction, and societal change on a massive scale. He and his cohorts saved what they could, when they could. Lees-Milne also says, about the National Trust at that time, "...we are not a bureaucratic team of experts, but a dedicated group of happy-go-lucky enthusiasts, who ought not to be bossed about." (Diaries 1946-1949 p.49)
As I read along in the diaries I find myself taking notes about both houses and owners. They often share names, or not, and sometimes I can't tell which is which until their context becomes apparent. Viz.:
Felbrigg = house
Wyndham Ketton-Cremer = human
Ockwells = house
Compton Beauchamp = house
Monk Hopton = house
Upton Cresset = house
Stafford Cripps = human
Polesden Lacey = house
Lydiard Tregoze = house
Wentworth Woodhouse = house
the Medlycotts = humans
the Grazebrooks = humans
Shardeloes = house
Worplesdon = house
Clumber = house
Swanton Morley = house
Gwynne Ramsey = human
Riette Lamington = human
Mindy Bacon = human
Burnett Pavitt = human
Lytes Cary = house
the Stavordales at Evershot = humans, house
How varied and wonderful the English language is! Lees-Milne's writing certainly highlights the oddities and beauties of it. He is usually straightforward as a writer, in his style, but is also wide awake to poetry and beauty:
"Set off this morning for Norfolk. Lunched at Saffron Walden - a poetic, medieval tapestry, wild-flower name..." (Diaries 1946-1949 p.131)
Enough for today, I've got to catch up in my own diaries - I still haven't copied notes from Lees-Milne's volumes five and six. I did finally find a copy of volume ten (see last post) - it was just a little over forty dollars, and is on approach from a bookseller in the U.K. as we speak. Phew. Glad to have the complete set. My summer reading is taken care of! I say that even as other books encroach, more or less all the time! Well, there are worse problems to have, I know. If anyone feels like chiming in, I would love to know your summer reading plans. Meanwhile, enjoy lilac-time. Which is so fleeting it must be savored as it happens.
Monday, May 02, 2016
unscrupulous, nasty, and frivolous?
A rainy day. Here we are. Um, so. Yeah. James Lees-Milne. Have I mentioned him before? ;O)
After several weeks of reading his diaries (the John Murray hardcover reprints) I feel like I am beginning to know him and learn his language. I'm in the thick of it. In volume four, today, it is late April, 1948. I don't want to get ahead of myself, though, and so will begin at the beginning, by saying yet again how much I enjoy reading other people's diaries. Lees-Milne is a conscientious diary-keeper and writes every day, or nearly every day. Most of his entries are not long, just notes with the details of "I did this, I did that, so-and-so was there, and said such-and-such." He does have decided opinions about everything and everyone, and states them often, with long strings of adjectives attached like kite tails. Even so, his diaries are so much less snarky and scandalous than I set out thinking they were going to be. In fact they seem neither snarky nor scandalous at all, really, and not just by today's standards (do we have standards...?). Yet another lesson in abandoning all preconceived notions about anything. So far his diaries are just diaries - observations, notations, records of the day-to-day. But his day-to-day is quite different from ours, and so I read on, fascinated. Through many lunches at many clubs. And many visits to many historic houses for work and for pleasure. Days of action and days of boredom. Books he's reading and writing. Views on politics and religion. Friends wandering in and out (and what friends they are: the Mitfords, Emerald Cunard, Ivy Compton-Burnett, various Sackville-Wests, Harold Nicolson, the Pope-Hennessy family - a veritable waterfall of names). And as an impossible-to-ignore backdrop to everything, in the first two volumes and beyond, the war. Bombs dropping in London, for months on end. Uncertainty and death.
He originally means to write his diaries only during the years of the war, and in fact he quits writing them after peace is declared. But soon starts again:
"Sunday, 6th January.... An explanation is now called for. Why do I resume this diary which three months ago I brought to an end? There is no explanation. I merely missed it like an old friend." (Diaries 1946-1949 p.3)
But I'm getting ahead of myself, jumping right in to volume three like that! How about the earlier ones? Well, the first two alternate in tone between Siegfried Sassoon's memoirs and Edward Gorey screenplays, if he had ever written such things. As I read along, I kept thinking of Gorey's mock-Edwardian-roaring-twenties country house folk, languishing on settees and going mysteriously missing during thunderstorms, etc. Like this, Lees-Milne at a country house for the weekend:
"Sunday, 9th August. The others sail spasmodically on the lake in their beastly boats, but the weather bores me and I don't go near it. When we all meet the fun is not furious and the conversation not sparkling. I feel discontented and unwell. Indeed I wonder why on earth I ever came." (Diaries 1942-1945 p.78)
Most of his writing, however, isn't so self-indulgent. Instead it's a long look at one person's experience during an extraordinary time. He writes about everything, including diary-keeping itself:
"I said that more people ought to keep diaries, but the trouble was that the most unscrupulous diarists were too scrupulous when it came to putting personal truths on paper. James (Pope-Hennessy) said that Cecil (Beaton's) diary would be the chronicle of our age, that we would only live through it. I said Eddy Sackville West kept one. James said, 'We could not be hoisted to posterity on two spikier spikes.'" (ibid p.196)
And he worries about what posterity (us) might think of him, because of the self-portrait he writes:
"I fear that in this diary I disclose the nastier, the more frivolous side of myself. I sincerely believe and fervently hope that I am not as nasty as I may appear. It is difficult to be entirely honest about oneself, because one does not necessarily know oneself. One thinks one knows. The consequence of being as honest as I try to be, must surely be that readers of these lines would pronounce me worse than many of my contemporaries who do not keep frank records of themselves. Frank? Not entirely, because I withhold things." (ibid p.384)
But isn't this why we read other people's diaries? To encounter the whole person, whether he or she would like us to or not? The writer of diaries always discloses more than originally intended, it seems to me, allowing us to read between the lines, as well as reading the lines themselves. And besides, no one can be nasty and frivolous all the time. Lees-Milne certainly isn't, if he is at all. I think about this when I write in my own diary. Sometimes I even write: this is how I am feeling, even when I wish I wasn't feeling this way, and am not in the least proud to be feeling what I am most certainly feeling. Ugh. It can entail painful self-revelation. But cathartic, too. I truly believe that keeping a diary is an excellent way to get otherwise haunting things off your mind and on to paper, where they belong, so you can get on with your day. I'll have more details about his diaries, not mine, soon. I'm enjoying them mightily, on so many levels - as personal disclosure, as a new language about art and architecture, as literary history, and especially as a record of all those small events which slowly add up to the whole of life. Even with everything happening here, regarding my own life and art, I'm happy that I still managed to read through three volumes of Lees-Milne and begin the fourth. And I only have one errant volume left to buy, out of the twelve-volume set. The hardcover copies I see online for sale are beyond my comfort zone, price-wise, even though there are many copies available (oh how I dislike online used book pricing algorithms and the havoc they engender). So I wait, and hope that someone will list a slightly less expensive hardcover, with a dust jacket, and describe both accurately. Is that too much to ask? Possibly. Beneath a Waning Moon, volume ten, is what I seek, in case anyone reading this knows of a copy for under, say, forty bucks. I have some time before the situation becomes desperate - at least as long as it takes for me to read volumes four through nine. I'm ordinarily a fast reader, but life events of late have me reading at the proverbial snail's pace, so I'm not worried. Yet.