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is an infinitely livelier one, and partly because he relies heavily on Harold’s letters (many of them previously unpublished), which in spite of all that can be said against his snobbery and superficiality are compulsively readable, and when he is writing to Vita and his sons often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 every interpreter of either of them has so far come to grief. How did it happen that this cheerily homosexual male (we are told that he never took his extramarital affairs seriously) was all his life obsessed by a woman? This is a problem worthy of Henry James or even Proust, since a large part of his adoration was based on her position as the daughter of the Sackvilles, though tragically for her not the heiress of Knole, the mansion built and inhabited since Tudor times by her family. The glamour of this overwhelmed him, and he never ceased to be grateful to her for having married him—the third son of a good but penniless and landless Scottish family. She was the Princesse de Guermantes to him. But she was also Odette. There are passages in his letters to her, startling in their emotional intensity, notably one in which he records minute by minute and hour by hour the agonies of a separation clouded by the suspicion that the loved one is being unfaithful, which could be those of Swann himself.
To some of this Lees-Milne was a witness. He describes Harold’s panic when Vita strolled across a village street in the face of light oncoming traffic: “Harold gripped my arm like a vice, turned his head away, and practically sobbing, cried out, ‘Oh Viti, Viti, she’s going to get run over. I know she’ll be killed. Oh God! Oh God!’ ” The Nicolsons had at this time been married for thirty-four years and even Lees-Milne could discern something peculiar in Harold’s behavior. Guilt? An extraordinary psychological dependence? Lees-Milne puts it down to husbandly devotion and lets it go at that, and this incuriosity is typical. Like Glendinning, he jogs from event to event without pause for analysis, and he is a poor writer. Sentences like “On arrival at Sissinghurst at the very end of April the garden was at its most promising” abound.
Why, then, these books? It isn’t as though either Nicolson had been an important writer. Some of us find Vita’s The Edwardians still readable for its social information (i.e., the servants in the great house going in to dinner in the same order as their masters upstairs); and gardeners will always admire her endlessly anthologized pieces for the Observer—chatty, informative, and a fountainhead of horticultural ideas, but scarcely literature. She never went beyond the conventions of the best seller. Overpraised in her lifetime, neither her novels, her biographies, nor her poetry can stand up to critical examination today.
Harold is another and in many ways sadder story. His natural talents were greater than his wife’s and he had two major qualifications: wit and a keen eye. Some People, recently reissued, is a little masterpiece in its genre; the Diaries & Letters are an invaluable record of the decline and fall of the British empire, albeit an unwilling one, and no student of the social and political history of England will be able to do without his brilliantly observed accounts of political meetings, smart luncheons, and weekends with the great and near-great with whom he was on intimate terms. Nevertheless, he failed in his ambition to be a serious literary man, and that for reasons he dimly grasped but couldn’t overcome. He had all the faults of the well-born English amateur, beginning with the inability to cope with brass tacks.
Heavy research fatigued him. For his life of Benjamin Constant, as one example, a lightning tour of Switzerland sufficed, and he made no effort to read the complete correspondence. According to Lees-Milne, “the calligraphy of Constant’s letters…revealed to him more than the words themselves glimpses of Constant’s sharp and mercurial character.” This mental laziness was his curse, too, in other ways. Lees-Milne tells us how tedious he found Sainte-Beuve’s “preoccupation with Port-Royal, sin and redemption,” and indeed his musings on that subject are the weakest parts of what is otherwise one of his better biographies. And if religion bored him, sex positively terrified him—not presumably in itself but for the risk he saw in any public discussion of it. Verlaine without the homosex, Swinburne without the vice anglais were typical of his sanitized literary studies, which too often read like the reflections of a gentleman who has noticed a slightly unpleasant smell and proposes to rise above it. As Edmund Wilson said in an unkind review, Harold’s perspective was essentially that of the British Foreign Office, and confronted with writers of dubious morals he instinctively distanced himself from them socially “by a quiet but well-placed accent of amusement, disapproval, disdain.”
Oddly enough, as Lees-Milne puts it, “Harold, while believing that Wilson had got the symptoms wrong, had a nasty feeling that he had got the illness right.” He knew he was a snob, and the perils of snobbery—amusingly set forth in his story of the French marquis who lost his only change at immortality by refusing Proust’s request to include him in Pastiches et Mélanges, on the ground that it would spoil his chance to get into the Jockey Club. Harold could see the absurdity of that, but not the parallel in his own life. Or what to do about it. Rather, he evaded the issue, preferring an explanation like Lees-Milne’s: that “his patrician background made him fastidious,” which won’t quite do, and anyway wasn’t true. Fastidiousness wasn’t the word for what ailed him.
His letters are studded with the symptoms of the disease. “How I wish I had not this aversion from Jews and coloured people,” he once wrote from a cruise ship. “I think they should be forbidden to bathe [in the ship’s pool] for they poison the water.” Americans were slightly better but not much. They had, he said, “a nice housemaid mentality,” and he compared Mrs. Dwight Morrow to the “very best type of retired upper servant.” Nearer home were the “bedints,” Sackville family patois for the lower orders and a word that tires one very much in both these books. Vita, too, used it constantly, and like Harold was made miserable by the presence of the working class. “My God, how workmen smell,” she writes when repairs are going on at Sissinghurst. “The whole house stinks of them. How I hate the proletariat.”
To be fair, many English were irritated by Harold’s blimpishness. When (for unadmirable reasons: he hoped Clement Atlee’s government would make him a peer) he suddenly enrolled in the Labour party, Richard Crossman said to him, “I hear you have joined the Labour Party. Which bit of it have you joined?” Worse was to come. Through a series of accidents, he found himself actually called upon to stand for Parliament as a Labour candidate. He was appalled, then rallied. “I have no hesitation about penetrating into working class houses,” he informed Vita, “and they are so grateful and loyal. It really moves me.” But it turned out they weren’t grateful or loyal enough, and Harold lost that election by twelve thousand votes.
But it is in the light of the Bloomsbury connection, canonized, so to speak, in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, that one comes to see the Nicolsons’ attitudes most clearly—and that, curiously enough, not on account of the differences but the similarities. Both sides would have repudiated this idea, Bloomsbury with indignation, for apart from Clive Bell, and in the younger generation, Raymond Mortimer, both of whom were devoted to him, Bloomsbury despised Harold—a pompous civil servant and negligible writer in their eyes, though in fact he was quite the equal of Strachey at anything but his best (which amounts to one book: Eminent Victorians) and a lot better than Strachey at his worst (Elizabeth and Essex); and must have been jollier company than the obscure Saxon Sydney-Turner, who rarely opened his mouth and whose accomplishments were nil. None of that counted. His diplomatic career was in itself enough to condemn Harold as a lightweight, to Bloomsbury a fatal charge, and he was dismissed accordingly.