“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 for being tempted by both sexes. He was hardly a pouncer. One would-be lady friend, tiring of his hesitation, remarks that “a gulf yawns.” Unable to make up his mind, Lees-Milne lets it yawn. Eventually the gulf narrows, but we are not told by how much.
It is no small irony that I am sitting here in my West Texas home town, attempting to claim these diaries for literature, in view of what Lees-Milne himself had to say when taken, ill-advisedly, to see the movie made from my third novel, The Last Picture Show:
John [Kenworthy-Browne] took me to a film at the Curzon which I realized was a good film but which I disliked. Called The Last Show of Something or Other it was set in a provincial oil town in Texas. The squalor of the shacks and the inhabitants, the total, absolute lack of culture and refinement turned my bourgeois stomach. It upsets me that such societies exist in Western countries. J. says this is the wrong way to look at such a film, and he is probably right. Certainly I was appalled by the message that sex was the exclusive recreation of these people.
Alas, it still is, unless one counts high school football, whose frenzied devotees are chanting outside my window as I write.
The only twentieth-century English diary to rival James Lees-Milne’s is, in my opinion, Virginia Woolf’s, and the two wonderful diaries come near to dove-tailing: Virginia Woolf drowned herself at the end of March 1941, and Lees-Milne’s begins about nine months later, in January of 1942. By temperament they were both court diarists. She had a kind of court and was the queen of it—she also had a great sensibility to investigate: hers. James Lees-Milne, merely a courtier but a very smart one, day by day and county by county weaves us a record of a great culture: England’s. The two are about equal when it comes to London street-life; here’s a short sample of the kinds of things he sees:
Waiting for the return bus I stand hunched against the bitter cold in a shop entrance. Suddenly a group of Salvationists march past and strike up a hymn with portentous solemnity and discipline, two stalwart matrons in blue bonnets goose-stepping at the fore. As they disappear round a corner an old beggar with a real wooden leg (which these days is a rarity) hobbles across my vision, briskly in step. I think what a Rowlandish scene this is in its English, laughable, humourless way. The strains of “God Our Help” were stifled by a gust of piercing wind and a swirl of old bus tickets and dust.
When James Lees-Milne gets into the countryside, where most of his work for the Trust was done, only the poets better him:
And that will be England gone.
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
They’ll be in books; it will linger on….
That is Philip Larkin, and those shadows, those meadows, and those carved choirs linger nowhere more vividly than in the pages of the Lees-Milne diaries.
It is easy, however, to see why, even in England, these diaries have not been fully appreciated for what they are: for one thing they aren’t yet fully what they are. A quarter remains to be published; we won’t have the whole until 2007, and even then it won’t really be the whole, a point I will return to in due course. It’s taken twenty-seven years, and several publishers, to get the first nine volumes out. There’s a tendency, as with all diaries, to dip in, and yet dipping into these books can as easily repel as attract. Who is this twit, the reader might think, if the reader catches Lees-Milne in one of his superior, Curzon-like moods:
At breakfast Harold [Nicolson] said, “Jamesey [Pope-Hennessy] asks me at times, ‘Did you not realize in September 1939 that this war would mean the end of the world?’ Of course I realized that it meant the end of it for us, but not for the vast majority.” I replied that since I did not belong to the vast majority his argument had no appeal for me.
James Lees-Milne was educated at Eton and Oxford. He would hardly seem to be your ordinary guy, and yet it’s more or less the staples of ordinary life—dispute with landlord, car won’t start, no parking places in Edinburgh, bank balance low, big fight with wife who, though he’s only going to the dentist, suspects him of sneaking off to seek his pleasures in the town—that give these twenty-five hundred pages their essential solidity. The landlord in this case is the Duke of Beaufort, on whose property the Lees-Milnes are living when their dogs get loose:
A disagreeable incident. I took the dogs round the village. Crossing the recreation ground, they bolted toward Vicarage Wood. I heard furious yells. Stalked cautiously round the entrance gate and saw the Duke with a pair of binoculars. I retreated, coward that I am. Alvilde very boldly decided that she must look for the dogs; ran into the Duke, who was beside himself with rage. He had been watching his cherished vixen and cubs. He was almost apoplectic. Said he would not have our bloody dogs on his land. Bloody this and bloody that. He would get his gun and shoot them. A. kept her head and her temper, apologised and said what a good idea. Then he called at the house. I went to the door. Again he ranted. He sent the keeper after the dogs; keeper called and also said he would shoot them if ever again they were seen loose. Duke telephoned, abused A., and slammed down the receiver. All for a trivial cause, in concern about some cubs which his hounds will tear to pieces before the autumn is through. Ghastly values, ghastly people. How I hate them.
When I first set out to quote these diaries I thought I might find a passage or two from each of the nine volumes that have appeared thus far; in no time I had ten pages of quotes just from 1942 alone, the first year of more than fifty: a parade begins that won’t stop for half a century, and hundreds of the great, near great, and not-at-all great walk in it. In time Churchill appears; and, in time, the Queen. The Mitford girls are here, and great hostesses (Colefax, Cunard), and T.S. Eliot and Stephen Spender and Anthony Powell; Cecil Beaton, Lady Diana Cooper, Ivy Compton-Burnett, the Pope-Hennessys, the Sitwells, the Sackville-Wests; there are artists, statesmen, politicians, and, of course, squires and dowagers by the score, some of the former by no means easy to keep up with:
It is a beautiful morning and Sir Henry gets into his electric chair, and I accompany him to the lakes and the temples; or rather, I gallop at breakneck speed behind him. He is quite unaware that his chair goes the devil of a pace…. As he presses the accelerator he asks questions which demand answers and intelligent comments. He keeps saying “Where are you? Why don’t you say anything?” When I do catch up I am so out of breath I can’t get the words out.
And then there was the Duke of Argyll, who Lees-Milne admits
is eccentric. He will rush without warning out of the room to play a bar or two of a Gregorian chant on a harmonium, or to play on a gong, or a French horn. He also has a cuckoo whistle which he likes to blow in the woods to bewilder the soldiers.
The Duke is indignant about the Wee Folk, the fairies, whom he claims are snubbing Scotland in favor of Ireland:
“We are not good enough for them in Scotland. Why! last year at Tipperary there were so many they caused a traffic block.”
And here is Lees-Milne’s cool appraisal of the young Bruce Chatwin:
I have seldom met a human being who exudes so much sex appeal with so comparatively little niceness. What does this boy want? He has finished his nomad book, and I wonder how good it is. When the or has worn off his jeunesse how much substance will be left beneath?
Though a bad novelist—he published two—James Lees-Milne was friends with a very good novelist, Anthony Powell, whose twelve-volume novel sequence is called A Dance to the Music of Time. In these diaries James Lees-Milne has also produced a twelve-volume work, covering much the same segment of English society, over much the same stretch of century. Parallels abound, and the novelist by no means plows the diarist under; for one thing Lees-Milne is a better narrating character than Nicholas Jenkins in the Dance.
And he is a narrating character: many scenes are reported that he did not himself witness, scenes without which the social portrait would not have nearly so much depth and detail. In some ways the diaries are superior to the novels. Anthony Powell baited so many hooks in his first ten volumes that he has to scramble—frantically and not always convincingly—to clear his lines in the last two.
James Lees-Milne’s concluding volumes more naturally follow the long advance of the Reaper. One of the tasks of a great narrative, novel or diary, is to attend to the gathering-in of the generations, and this Lees-Milne does superbly, merely by going to the funerals and reporting: it’s John Betjeman’s service today, his own wife’s tomorrow; beauty, wit, and learning all begin to fail; the century in which he has been a very active figure is coming to its close.
The books begin in the midst of war. The great traveler Robert Byron, who had been in love with James Lees-Milne, though often referred to, is dead before we start; and Lees-Milne’s oldest friend, Tom Mitford, brother of the famous sisters, is killed in Burma in April of 1945. Lees-Milne had long been close to the Mitford family; may indeed have been in love with Diana Mitford (later Guinness, later Mosley): there are said to be letters at Yale. Whatever the truth of that, Diana Mosley figures in two touching scenes, separated in time by nearly forty years: after Tom Mitford’s death:
There has been a gathering of the sisters. Diana unexpectedly walked into the Mews where they were all assembled, not having seen her father in seven years, he declining to set eyes on her after her marriage to Tom [Sir Oswald] Mosley. Nancy said she sailed in unabashed, and at once, like the old Diana, held the stage and became the centre of them all. To their amazement Lord Redesdale [her father] greeted her affectionately. Diana had motored up in a Daimler with two policemen in attendance. Lord R. in his old fashioned way insisted on sending out cups of hot, sweet tea, which he said was what policemen always liked best. Diana whispered in some trepidation that Tom Mosley was waiting in the car, and warned Nancy to keep her father away. But he insisted on taking Diana downstairs…. Finally she had to explain, “Farve, the Man Mosley [Lord R. always referred to him as such] is waiting in the motor for me.” Lord Redesdale laughed and let her go. Infinitely poignant I think.
But no more poignant, I think, than this from 1983:
Selina [Hastings] said that Diana Mosley was asked to lunch with Frank Longford in the House of Lords. She was ushered into a small waiting-room. No Longford to greet her. Then in came a little, down-at-the-heels, shoddy, shuffling man. Diana looked closely and said in her gentle voice, “Bryan!” He gave a start, and said, “Which one are you?” He said to Selina later, “Do you know, that was the first time I had met Diana in fifty years that I have not wept.”
He was Bryan Guinness, her first husband.
It’s clear that when James Lees-Milne began these diaries he had no idea of producing literature. Throughout there’s much frivolity, gossip, talk of love and houses, fun, mere fun. But if the reader will start at the first page of the first book, Ancestral Voices, and read straight on through the years and then decades, it will be seen that this highly educated, fallible, finical, often nervous man has brought twentieth-century England out of the mists as no one else quite has. He belongs with Saint-Simon, Madame de Sévigné, Pepys, Boswell, Woolf: not all strictly diarists but all similarly capable of sophisticated, sharply etched social portraiture.
I was alarmed to note, in his foreword to the first book, that Lees-Milne had cut his manuscript by a third. He felt there was too much country-house description; and felt, too, that he ought to conceal certain indiscretions of his friends. Various editors, as the diaries came in—no doubt for sound publishing reasons—also urged him to cut; but the editors were seeing piecemeal work and none saw enough to cause them to sense that this is a great diary. I’d like to someday see it all put back, the country houses and the indiscretions. Save for perhaps a handful, the friends who committed the indiscretions are as deep in the grave as he is. Who were they and what exactly did they do?
The rule with great diaries, what few there are, is that readers who like that kind of thing will never want less of the raw stuff. They’ll only want more.
November 21, 2002