Harold Nicolson
Harold Nicolson; drawing by David Levine

We still do not quite understand what happened in England in the Thirties. It is a period for which we by now possess an ample documentation in the form of memoirs, reminiscences, autobiographies, and biographies; and in addition we have our own memories. Yet in spite of all this, there is the slightly frustrating feeling that something has been left out, and that we still lack the essential clue to understanding. We may, of course, be deceiving ourselves. It may be that the characteristic feature of life in England in the Thirties was precisely that nothing did happen, except a decline in vitality, a fundamental failure of nerve. Yet if we accept this, it becomes almost impossible to understand how Britain, which in 1939 was drinking the last bitter dregs of the cup of appeasement, by 1940 should have been able to win, in the skies over London, one of the decisive battles of the world.

So one looks eagerly to these two new books for any fresh light they may throw on the period. One is not wholly disappointed, even though, in Harold Nicolson’s diaries, one’s expectations may have been pitched too high. For because of Nicolson’s literary gifts and his exceptional opportunities for observing the way the English lived then, one had hoped that his diaries would have formed a record combining something of the qualities of Greville, Creevey, Saint-Simon, Saint-Beuve, or Proust.

In 1930, already the author of several excellent books, Nicolson retired from the diplomatic service to enter a new life as a journalist, a publicist, and a politician. By birth, position, talent, and amiability, he had the entry, as of prescriptive right, to all of the intricately interrelated circles, social, political, and artistic, which made up the English establishment, and a curiosity and zest for life which made him make the best use of his privilege. Unwearied, except in rare moments of dejection, he passes in these pages from debates in the House of Commons to tea with Virginia Woolf and first nights with Noel Coward, from the luncheon tables of Lady Cunard and Lady Colefax, those two aging queens of fashion, to dinner at Pratt’s or the Savoy Grill. When he goes on a lecture tour of the Balkans, it is natural that King Boris and King Carol should entertain him. When he enters the House of Commons, Churchill, with a cry of “Harold!” opens his arms wide to greet him; once there, he plays an honorable part in the efforts of the small group around Anthony Eden to oppose the policy of appeasement. Yet his political career is marred by some defect of judgment. Personal loyalty and affection made him a supporter of Sir Oswald Mosley’s New Party; he entered Parliament as a follower of the senile Ramsay MacDonald. In compensation, he enjoys the satisfactions of a happy marriage, to Victoria Sackville-West, an aristocrat, a poet and novelist, who at their country house at Sissinghurst in Kent created a garden which was itself one of the splendors of England. Inevitably, at tea in the garden, Auden and Spender turned up. Nicolson likes them, though their values are not his. He likes everybody. Everyone in these diaries is nice. Earl Baldwin is nice. Noel Coward is nice. Even the women are nice, except Lady Astor and Mrs. Ronnie Greville.

IF THIS RECORD of an active and happy life is disappointing, it is largely because of the limitations Nicolson imposed on himself. What he wrote so conscientiously every night was not meant to form the memorial of an age; it was designed as a kind of aidemémoire for his own use. The diaries are in fact a vivid and meticulous record of how a gifted Englishman of the upper classes spent his day during the Thirties and as such they have their value for history; but the essential triviality of what is recorded often makes one feel that Nicolson set it down simply because he was afraid he might forget how the time had passed. Yet one suspects that in this he had an ulterior purpose, and that the diary was meant as a kind of factual framework for the huge ten-volume semi-fictional autobiography, an English A la Recherche du temps perdu which he at one moment projected.

In describing this ambitious and never-to-be-realized plan, Nicolson noted that it was to have a courage and honesty which Proust never achieved. The remark has a particular kind of vanity, or perhaps complacency would be a better word, which beneath a mask of modesty is the inalienable prerogative of the English gentleman. The same kind of vanity is apparent in another entry, in which he says that his intense enjoyment of the House of Commons is that of an observer, who through the glass walls of an aquarium watches the mysterious movements of the fishy tribe within. He is deceiving himself. Detached he may be, but there is nothing in the diaries to show that he does not share all the assumptions, preconceptions; and prejudices (including their peculiarly muted form of anti-Semitism) of those he is observing. He is inside the aquarium, a fish like the others, though half concealed in some weedfringed grotto from which he watches them as they swim by.


Other images spring readily to mind as one reads the diaries. At moments, the shadow of Proust’s M. de Norpois falls across it. At others, one feels as if one were being conducted, by an admirably intelligent and urbane guide, on a tour of some immense stately home, a kind of National Trust House, so vast that it shelters innumerable families who are all intimately connected by ties of blood, education, and shared prejudice. All recognize our guide as we pass, and we recognize many of the great, or of the merely fashionable or notorious. One catches the flavor of that thick, opaque, almost gruel-like consistency of English life which so fascinated Henry James. What one misses is all the things that alleviate it and make it bearable; in these public rooms and among these public faces one sees and hears nothing of what happens in the privacy of the bedchambers or in the servants’ quarters, or of the strange meetings, intrigues, whispered conversations that take place in the winding corridors and staircases that connect the two.

On our tour, however, we shall have caught a momentary glimpse, in a detached wing of the great mansion, of one particular family group distinguished from their neighbors by their elevated tastes, their intellectual integrity, and their devotion to a private religion which was originally revealed to the prophet G. E. Moore. The sect is known as Bloomsbury, from the wing of the house it inhabits. If its prophet was Moore, its high priestesses were the two sisters, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. Its story teller was E. M. Forster, its historian Lytton Strachey, its court painter Duncan Grant; Clive Bell and Roger Fry looked after the interior decoration; it had a kind of managing director in John Maynard Keynes; its poets were—but perhaps it had no poets because poetry does not flourish in an atmosphere of devotion to the cultivation of beautiful states of mind and the contemplation of works of art.

THERE WERE also, of course, the children. As children will, they sometimes tired of their parents’ intense but austere pleasures and the confinement of their pretty drawing rooms. They explored all the dark recesses of the huge mansion, its dusty attics and lumber rooms. They ventured beyond the formal gardens surrounding it into the most distant corners of the demesne where the grass was overgrown and the weeds rank and undergrowth was choking the timber. They climbed the crumbling walls of the park and beyond them found villages where men were hungry and in want, and heard of great cities, somewhere to the north, where entire populations were without work, and of a strange, new, sinister race of men whose answer to a beautiful state of mind was the revolver and the concentration camp. They set out on their rambles with Principia Ethica in their pockets; when they returned in the evening, dirty and disheveled and shouting rather raucously, they had exchanged it for Das Kapital, for like their parents they also needed a sacred book.

Journey to the Frontier is the story of the rise and fall of Bloomsbury, of its origins in the Cambridge that preceded and survived the First World War, and of how a younger generation revolted against its parents. It is also an extremely well-documented account of one of the decisive changes that took place in the intellectual climate of England in the Thirties. Its authors are two young American scholars who are to be congratulated both on the material they have collected as the result of their researches and on the imaginative sympathy with which they have entered into the intellectual world that they describe; all the more so because it is a world which is now almost entirely dead, though one may still find faded if authentic echoes of it in the more sophisticated common rooms of Oxford and Cambridge.

The authors have chosen to tell the story by interweaving the biographies of two young men, Julian Bell and John Cornford, who were born into whatever color Cambridge and Bloomsbury used for the purple, and who were both killed in the Spanish Civil War. The method has a certain attraction but I am not sure that it is justified. The two young men were sufficiently alike in their origins to make their short life-stories somewhat repetitive; they were too unlike for either, or both together, to be taken as representative, The elder, Julian Bell, was of the purest blood of Bloomsbury, son of Clive and Vanessa Bell, nephew of Virginia Woolf, grandson of Leslie Stephen; John Cornford was the son of the minor poetess Frances Cornford and of the great classical scholar, Francis Cornford, Professor of Greek at Cambridge. As a great-grandson of Charles Darwin, he shared an even greater intellectual inheritance than Bell. But both were the heirs of a strain that has made as great a contribution to the intellectual history of England as the Cecils have to its political history. Both enjoyed the love and devotion of exceptionally sensitive and understanding parents; both went to Cambridge and both played a notable part in the undergraduate society of their day. Both were, by fits and starts, poets; both were, in different degrees, Marxists; both showed great promise, and Cornford more than promise; both died too young for us to know whether, and in what form, their achievements would have fulfilled it.


But though so alike in upbringing and education, in character they were very unlike. There was something untidy and sprawling about Julian Bell, in mind as well as in physique, which showed itself in an inability to find some single center around which to organize his many and varied talents and enthusiasms. Even by the time he left Cambridge, to become a lecturer in English at a Chinese university, a certain shadow of failure, of anti-climax, had fallen across his path. Cornford was a very different person. He had a first-class mind and a hard core of personality which impressed everyone he came in contact with, his elders as well as his contemporaries, and he possessed to a remarkable degree the power of directing his energies and gifts to concrete and definable ends. His poetry, which he thought subsidiary to his activities as a Party worker, is simple and direct, but extremely moving, and in a certain combination of harshness and tenderness shows great originality of feeling. It could quite reasonably be said that his death at twenty-two was the greatest individual loss which England suffered during the Thirties.

THE PROBLEM which Journey to the Frontier sets itself is to explain why these two young men came to their improbable death in Spain; and at the same time to describe how the emergence of young men like them meant the breakup of the Cambridge-Bloomsbury axis. It meant, among other things, the breakup of the Society, that remarkable Cambridge institution which counted among its founders Tennyson and Hallam, and whose members were bound by as strict a vow of Omertà as the Mafia. Officially, the Society did not exist; to be elected to it, as both Bell and Cornford were, was the greatest intellectual distinction that could be conferred on a Cambridge undergraduate. But the Society could only flourish in that atmosphere of sweetness and light, of complete personal trust and confidence among its members, of which Moore’s ethical views were a kind of distillation. It withered away under the impact of left-wing intellectuals like Bell and Cornford, or others like Guy Burgess, deeply committed to a political dogma that prohibited genuinely free discussion, who to their elders’ concern with the morality of the finer feelings replied with Brecht’s harsh and brutal words: Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral (Grub first, ethics later). They convicted their elders of guilt and selfindulgence; tempers were lost; voices grew shrill; the intellectual love-feast disintegrated under the rude attacks of young men who found in the Party cell and the Communist underground something which the Society could not give them.

Journey to the Frontier tells this story very well. But it is a pity, I think, that its authors should have chosen to tell it entirely within the terms of the culture into which Bell and Cornford were born and out of which they struggled to escape; particularly because, viewed anew with fresh eyes from across the Atlantic, it might have revealed some surprising facets. For what led these young men to Spain was precisely the effort to break out of such confining and constricting limitations. Such an effort could only be successful if somehow or other they transformed themselves from revolutionaries of the word into revolutionaries of the deed; otherwise they would still be enjoying the love-feast and adding one more chapter to the endless dialogue of mind with mind and soul with soul.

Yet the condition of England in the Thirties effectively denied the possibility of such a transformation. Young men like Cornford and Bell went out to the working classes as the Narodniks had once gone out to the people; they received the same sour and skeptical response. But the story of how and why that response was inevitable is as much a part of their short lives and their deaths as anything that happened at Trinity or Kings or in the drawing rooms of Bloomsbury. They were inside the aquarium and they wanted to get out; but in thinking that they could do so in England they fell victims to many gigantic illusions, compared with which Moore’s philosophical errors were trivial.

To move from Bloomsbury into Communist headquarters in Parton Street was merely to exchange one game for another. Perhaps they knew it, though there is no indication of this in Journey to the Frontier. But Spain at least was not a game. There words could be changed into deeds and it was the effort to achieve some such consummation that led them to their death.

“Was it useless death after all?” It is a criticism, I think, of Journey to the Frontier that the question hardly seems to arise and that the death of Bell and Cornford appears merely as an incident in the history of Bloomsbury. In this, I think, its authors do their two heroes less than justice. They need to be judged in a wider context; it might reveal them in a harsher light than is thrown upon them here, but it would give both their life and their death the significance they deserve.

This Issue

March 23, 1967