Inside the Aquarium

Diaries and Letters 1930-1939

by Harold Nicolson, edited by Nigel Nicolson
Atheneum, 448 pp., $7.50

Journey to the Frontier: Two Roads to the Spanish Civil War

by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams
Little, Brown, 430 pp., $7.50

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…

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