Caves of Ice: Diaries, 1946 & '47
Midway on the Waves
A Mingled Measure: Diaries, 1953–1972
Through Wood and Dale: Diaries, 1975–1978
“Rather stern, melancholy, youngish-oldish James Lees-Milne, secretary of society for the preservation of country seats” is how Bernard Berenson described our diarist, when the latter came to lunch and tea at Berenson’s famous Villa I Tatti, in October of 1947.
As usual, when there are dueling diarists—it occurs not merely with Berenson but with such good friends of Lees-Milne’s as Harold Nicolson and Anthony Powell—James Lees-Milne does better by his subject than his subject is able to do by him:
Signorina Mariano lives here as hostess. Sweet woman who relieves tension and makes one happy…. Then in came the great man. The great man is a tiny man…. Looks frail and tired…. When he speaks he speaks to the point. No irrelevancies, no pleasantries. I felt very shy and was tongue-tied. He saw at once that I had nothing to communicate to him. But I was fascinated by listening to his talk to others. My fellow guest was Mrs. Bliss, a grand Henry Jamesian lady, old, and described as a wise goose. Berenson is tiresome in that he is very conscious of being the famous art-dictator and sage…. This expectancy of deference does not make for ease…. In stony silence he dismisses a conventional advance as a triviality, which it doubtless is….
During tea in the loggia Berenson sat in the full sun, talking of London. I asked if he had not thought London beautiful before 1914. He said No, the mews were filthy slums, the fogs were stifling, and the number of drunk women and their smell overpowering…. He conveyed to me the impression of a great man striving to be something which he isn’t. Perhaps he wishes he were an aristocratic connoisseur, and not a self-made professional expert.
James Lees-Milne (1908–1997) began working for the National Trust in 1936, left for war service, was invalided out in 1941, went back to the Trust, and worked there off and on, at various levels of full- or part-time employment, and various levels of edginess as well, until 1966; in 1951 he married Alvilde Chaplin, a marriage mainly happy, if not without alarums. Certainly a big alarum was the crush Lees-Milne got on Michael Bloch, the editor of the last five volumes of the diaries. But the marriage, like the diaries, succeeded, in part because Alvilde seemed to possess a spine of steel, and in part, too, because Lees-Milne, like Pepys and Boswell before him, was disarmingly open about his own failings—indeed, would not have known how to go about concealing them. The failings themselves might range from a simple inability either to wash or to fix cars—
Eardley and I hose and wash the National Trust car, each doing a side, thoroughly we think, with sponge and leather. When the car has dried I am horrified to find streaks of mud still on my side. I look shyly at Eardly’s side. It is just as bad. I am pleased.
—to a long, if hesitant, capacity…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.