The Bloom Is Off

A new, full-length life of Vita Sackville-West? Two hefty volumes about Harold Nicolson? We live in an age of biographical overkill. The cottage industry based on Bloomsbury and its dependencies is proof enough of that. But surely the curiosity of readers interested in the Nicolsons has been amply satisfied in their son Nigel’s Portrait of a Marriage, Harold’s own Diaries & Letters (three volumes), not to speak of countless references to them in other books, notably Quentin Bell’s life of Virginia Woolf and the Woolf letters and diaries.

In all these not many stones have been left unturned, and only a gifted biographer could go over the ground again to much effect. Unfortunately, neither of these entries can qualify. Glendinning plods along, dutifully summarizing Vita’s books, contributing little to what we already know, and chiefly relying on the widespread impression that Vita was a fascinating person. Maybe she was in real life. Certainly Virginia Woolf, enamored of her noble lineage, her pearls, and her legs like beech trees, though so; and so did many others, including her worshipful husband. But in print, she comes across as dull and immature, arrogant and spoiled, with a commonplace mind, and as even Virginia was forced to admit, “a pen of brass.” Glendinning doesn’t dispel this impression, perhaps because she seems unaware that it exists.

Lees-Milne does better by Harold, partly because his subject is an infinitely livelier one, and partly because he relies heavily on Harold’s letters (many of them previously unpublished), which in spite of all that can be said against his snobbery and superficiality are compulsively readable, and when he is writing to Vita and his sons often very moving. But there were mysteries about this sociable, conformist, class-ridden yet not at all stupid man that Lees-Milne has no interest in solving. Thus he tells us that “there can be little doubt that Guy Burgess extracted from Harold inside information which he passed on to his masters in Moscow.” Here he touches on one of the dilemmas of our time. How was it that men like Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, the flower of English civilization if one is to go by their social and cultural credentials, betrayed their country? And how did they come by so many unwitting collaborators who, like Harold, ignored the evidence before their eyes?

The drunken Burgess seems to have given himself away over and over again; yet Harold refused to notice and exhibited a similar blindness when he allied himself to Oswald Mosley’s fascist party, to which he clung long after it was excusable to do so. The explanation that presents itself is of course the old-school tie among homosexuals and the unwritten law that the ruling class must keep its secrets or chaos will result. It is an explanation worth examining, but Lees-Milne, an intimate friend of Harold’s and himself a member of the old-boy network, won’t touch it.

The same is true of Harold’s relationship to Vita, the rock on which…

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