Julian Grenfell: His Life and the Times of His Death 1888-1915
The Cousins: The Friendships, Opinions and Activities of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and George Wyndham
The figures with whom both these books are concerned, though all three Englishmen with aristocratic family backgrounds, active in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, are in some ways very different: Julian Grenfell was a talented and attractive youth of great promise who was cut off in 1915, aged twenty-seven, by the First World War. He and his younger brother Billy, who was killed a few weeks later, came to symbolize for a good many of their contemporaries the tragic waste of that war. Julian himself had welcomed the war: “It is all the most wonderful fun,” he wrote shortly after reaching the front; “better fun than one could ever imagine. I hope it goes on a nice long time; but pigsticking will be the only tolerable pursuit after this or one will die of sheer ennui.”
Four weeks before he died, Julian wrote a poem called “Into Battle” which became quite well known, and which Nicholas Mosley rightly calls “almost unique amongst poems of the First World War in that it shows no outrage against war.” (It is to be found in the current Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse, edited by Philip Larkin.) Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, poet, traveler, and upholder of unpopular causes—perhaps best known today for his Diaries (1920)—despised and abhorred the First World War from its beginning. When it broke out, he was seventy-four years old and was destined to live eight more years. His younger cousin, George Wyndham (1863-1913), was a poet and critic as well as a Tory politician of some note whose Irish Land Act of 1903, a constructive piece of legislation which made it not only possible but feasible for tenants to purchase holdings from their landlords, has recently been called with much justice “the pinnacle of Conservative reform in Ireland.”
Three very different people, then. Yet there exist important similarities among them, quite apart from the fact that all three were poets, romantics, and, when all is said and done, political conservatives. The authors of both books have had access to family papers hitherto unavailable, and both are especially interested in the social and psychological atmosphere of that period before the outbreak of the First World War which used to be known as a golden age of optimism and opulence but has increasingly been found by historians to contain not only great misery “downstairs,” but seeds of violence and destruction behind the glittering façade “upstairs.”
As a part of the setting within which their subjects play their parts, both authors conjure up that lost world of the “seasons”: hunting and shooting in the country during the winter, parties and balls in London until August, more shooting in Scotland in the autumn; country houses with retinues of servants such as the Grenfells’ Taplow, the Wyndhams’ Clouds, and Blunt’s Crabbet; and gatherings there of self-designated sets of the elect like the “Souls,” among whom wit, gossip, and persiflage were indulged in by the likes of Julian’s mother, A.J …
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