Archive for the ‘Harold Nicolson’ Category

I am currently reading A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson, a memoir/biography of seven generations of women in her family.  It’s a book I’ve been looking forward to for some time, having only heard good things about it (it was shortlisted for the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize in 2016) and I can confirm it is excellent.

The bulk of the focus is on the famous side of the family, the Sackville-Wests.  Juliet Nicolson’s paternal grandmother was Vita Sackville-West, the author and gardener, and so her grandfather was Harold Nicolson, one of my very favourite diarists and letter writers.  A few years ago I read The Harold Nicolson Diaries (edited by his son – and Juliet’s father – Nigel Nicolson) and was especially charmed by a letter he wrote to the newborn Juliet.  One of the pleasures of A House Full of Daughters has been getting to see that relationship through Juliet’s eyes as she remembers him as “a marvellous grandfather, a blueprint for grandfatherhood.”

One of the points Juliet makes is that in her family it was often the father who was the more affectionate, involved parent.  Harold was certainly one such father (as his affectionate letters to his children show) and was a delightful playmate for his grandchildren when they arrived:

‘Can I join you in the paddling pool?’ he would ask as he stepped, without waiting for an answer, straight into the water, wearing his shoes and socks.  ‘May I offer you a light?’ he would suggest, footman-solicitous, as we placed a sugar cigarette on our lips while he flicked a match to the red-painted end.

He also delighted in games that held just the right amount of danger for his energetic grandchildren (Juliet and younger brother Adam):

There were dares known as courage tests. ‘I dare you to jump off the top of the tower steps with your eyes shut.’  Or, ‘I dare you to climb to the top of the wall on the lower courtyard.’  The long drop from the top of the tower steps to the lawn below required our small legs to be courageous, but the Bagatelle urns that Victoria had given Vita from her Wallace Collection legacy, and now planted with sweet-smelling viburnum, acted as hand steadiers.  The wall was a great challenge.  A fragile, crumbly Elizabethan affair, it was sturdy enough to support a fully bloomed Madame Alfred Carrière rose but hardly robust enough for the combined weight of the two boisterous grandchildren.  My mother would appear and shout, ‘Oh, Harold, I have asked you not to endanger the lives of my children.’  ‘What about my wall?’ he would replay as he gestured for us to climb higher, his moustache rising up his face and expanding with his smile.

It is a joy to read about such affection.



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What a strange year it has been, full of changes, new adventures and, as far as this blog is concerned, very abnormal reading habits.  But, however altered my reading schedule may have been, the quality of books remained excellent and it was not at all difficult to pick my ten favourite books from 2013:


10. The Talisman Ring (1936) – Georgette Heyer
Having discovered Heyer a decade ago, I thought I’d read all her best works.  But no, other bloggers assured me, I still needed to read The Talisman Ring.  Nonsense, I thought, but it was Heyer so I was determined to read it anyways.  Of course, I discovered that everyone was right and that this hilarious tale of a fanciful young woman, a dashing smuggler, and their put-upon elders is indeed one of the greatest things Heyer wrote.

9. Alif the Unseen (2012) – G. Willow Wilson
I struggled to review all the books I wished to this year and that included some of my favourites, like Alif the Unseen.  An extraordinary combination of fantasy, religion, and 21st technology, this story of an Indo-Arab hacker who finds himself on the run from the corrupt state authorities is powerful, timely, and above all, engaging.  It was one of only two books this year that kept me reading until late into the night (the other is #6 on this list).

8. The English Air (1940) – D.E. Stevenson
Stevenson is an author whose quality varies dramatically from book to book.  I love her but most of her novels are merely good rather than excellent.  The English Air is one of those excellent exceptions, sensitively following the struggles of a young German man who finds himself torn between England and Germany at the beginning of the Second World War.  Stevenson paints as alluring a portrait of the domestic charms of middle-class pre-war England as anyone but it is her intelligent handling of Franz’s divided loyalties that makes this rise above most of her other works. 2013Books2

7. The Rosie Project (2013) – Graeme Simsion
This quirky and touching romantic comedy about a socially inept Australian scientist’s search for love was an absolute delight.  I loved it so much in fact that I read it not once but twice this year and am now busy pressing everyone I know to read it too.

6. Under Heaven (2010) – Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay, the master of historical fantasy, has now published two books inspired by Chinese history: Under Heaven and River of Stars.  I read both this year and both are extraordinarily good but Under Heaven was, to me, the most absorbing.  Kay is astonishingly good at balancing character development, political intrigue, and action, making for a book that left my pulse racing and my mind whirling.

5. London War Notes (1971) – Mollie Panter-Downes
The fact that I was even able to get my hands on a copy of this all-too-rare book was a miracle; as anyone who has had the privilege of reading this will agree, it is a travesty that it has not yet been reprinted.  During the Second World War, Mollie Panter-Downes’ “Letter from London” was published every second week in the New Yorker magazine, giving her American readers a glimpse of the wartime experience in London.  In typical Panter-Downes fashion, she is observant and articulate, intelligent and unsentimental.  These letters capture Londoners at their best and worst and are an extraordinary historical record as well as examples of first-rate journalism.


4. Framley Parsonage (1861) – Anthony Trollope
I had some reservations but, for the most part, I adored the fourth book in Trollope’s Barsetshire series.  Trollope’s handling of the virtues and failings of his young men reminded me once more of the truthfulness of his writing (and the consistency of human beings, regards of the century) while his female characters, young and old, were delightfully strong, funny, and sympathetic.

3. The Harold Nicolson Diaries (2004) – edited by Nigel Nicolson
An absorbing and revealing collection of wonderfully-written diaries and letters, I loved getting to glimpse all the different facets of Nicolson’s character, from youth to old age.

2. A Time of Gifts (1977) – Patrick Leigh Fermor
In another year, this might have grabbed the top spot.  Fermor’s account of the first leg of the charmed journey he took across Europe as a teenager is beautifully written and had me longing to set out on adventures of my own. Speaking of Jane Austen

1. Speaking of Jane Austen (1943) – Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern
All the other titles on this list were wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as this collection of delightfully eccentric Austen-focused essays.  And, of course, it is the only book I have ever come across that spends a sufficient amont of time lavishing praise on the deserving Emma (if you are looking for the fastest way to my heart, look no further).

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The Harold Nicolson DiariesWe all have our childhood heroes.  Some people spend their adolescence admiring athletes or film stars.  Some dream of growing up to be the next Austen or Hemingway.  In my case, I spent my teen years slightly obsessed with 20th Century diplomats and politicians.  At some point, my intentions to purse a diplomatic career waned (probably when I realised I lacked both the tact necessary to succeed in that field and the bilingualism that is a prerequisite for any kind of government post) but my fascination with the diaries of those whose lives were devoted to civil service has never faltered.  I suspect Charles Ritchie will always be my favourite diary-keeping diplomat but after reading The Harold Nicolson Diaries edited by Nigel Nicolson earlier this year, I must say that Ritchie finally has a rival for my affections.

For years, I have been reading history books about wartime Britain where Nicolson’s diaries were heavily quoted.  His career during that period I was familiar with: a diplomat turned writer turned politician, Nicolson was among a small number of MPs who spent the years preceding WWII believing and arguing that fascism needed to be confronted and defeated rather than ignored or appeased in an effort to ensure peace.  He was never a brilliant politician but he was intimate with those in power and his diaries offer a fascinating glimpse of the government in wartime.

To some of my readers, I suspect Nicolson is better known as the husband of the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West.  The two had a famously unconventional partnership, with both Nicolson and Sackville-West conducting homosexual affairs outside of their marriage, but if there is one thing that is clear from this book (and from their son Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage) it is how devoted they were to one another over the almost fifty years they spent together.  Though the book is titled The Harold Nicolson Diaries, it is actually a collection of both diaries and letters and most of the letters were written to Vita.  For a man who had, when very young, dreamed of “a little cuddly wife who wouldn’t talk”, Vita was an extraordinary choice for a partner but not one Nicolson ever seemed to regret.  His adoration of her is clear in his diaries, his letters to his sons and his parents, and very much in his letters to her:

I do not think that, except for Winston [Churchill], I admire anyone as much as I admire you.

I remember your saying (years ago) that you had never established a complete relationship with anyone.  I don’t think you ever could – since yours is a vertical and not horizontal nature, and two-thirds of you will always be submerged.  But you have established, with your sons and me, a relationship of absolute trust and complete love.  I don’t think that these things would be so fundamental to the four of us were it not that each one of the four is a private person underneath.

I have often wondered what makes the perfect family.  I think it is just our compound of intimacy and aloofness.  Each of us has a room of his own.  Each of us knows that there is a common-room where we meet on the basis of perfect understanding.

Though edited by his son, these diaries are not presented to entirely flatter Nicolson.  The less appealing parts of his character are there: he can be snobbish and unrepentantly racist. He sulks like a child after defeats and hungers for at times undeserved admiration.  He sometimes makes bad decisions, he allies himself with the wrong people, and he flip-flops on major issues.  He is easily flattered and easily insulted.  He is, in short, very, very human and more aware of his failings than most.  At the end of each year, he takes stock of his life and those entries show a man fully aware of what the world thinks of him and resolved, always, to do better:

I am thought trashy and a little mad.  I have been reckless and arrogant.  I have been silly.  I must recapture my reputation.  I must be cautious and more serious.  I must not try to do so much, and must endeavour to what I do with greater depth and application.  I must avoid the superficial.

Yet in spite of all this – what fun life is! (31 December 1931)

Yet despite the off-putting moods of self pity, Nicolson is for the most part charmingly aware of limitations and contradictory ways.  He knows his strength, however much he may like to dream of being dashing and a man of action, lies in solid, conservative competence:

We have a meeting of the sub-committee of the London Library to consider who is to be President.  We decide to separate the posts of President and Chairman and to choose for the latter, not a man of eminence, but a man who will attend meetings.  They therefore choose me. (25 October 1951)

And he is able to observe, delightfully, the workings of his own easily-flattered mind:

The Spectator this week suggests that I should be sent as Ambassador to Washington.  It amuses me to observe my own reactions to such a suggestion.  My first fear is that it will expose me to ridicule, since all we Nicolsons are morbidly sensitive to being placed in a false position.  My second impulse is to realise how much Vita would hate it.  My third is to feel how much I should loathe the pomp and publicity of an Embassy.  My fourth is to agree with the Spectator that I might do the job rather well.  But it will not occur. (21 April 1939)

But it is the family-minded side of him that is the most appealing.  Whether he is writing to welcome a new daughter-in-law into the family (“You will find us shy, eccentric, untidy, but most benevolent”) or advising his young son on how best to get his mother’s approval for the kind of dangerous adventures that are the stuff of every mother’s nightmares (“she is not in any way a narrow-minded woman”), he is perfection.   The book covers his life from 1907 (when he was just twenty) to 1964 and so we get to see not just the relationship he had with his wife but the ones he had with both his parents (his chatty letters to them show what a close, friendly relationship they had), his two sons, and, eventually, his grandchildren.  For all the other things he was in his life and for all the varying level of success he had, he was a wonderful family man.  I defy anyone to read this letter Nicolson wrote in 1954 to his freshly christened granddaughter and not think what  delightful grandfather he would have made (his granddaughter certainly thought so):

Now that you have been admitted into the Church and had a paragraph all to yourself in the Daily Telegraph, you should be able, if not to read, then at least take in, private letters.

I thought it noble of you to remain quiescent while your godfather and godmother promised such glum things on your behalf.  But I did not think it noble of you to sneak when I gave you a silver spoon and you went and bashed your own eye and forehead with it.  It is foolish, in any case, to bash oneself with spoons.  But it is evil for a girl about to be blessed by a bishop to sneak about her grandfather.  You did not see the look your mother gave me.  You did not realise the deep suspicion with which your nurse thereafter regarded me.  (What an ass that woman was, flattering you like that; and how weak of you to respond with a grin to her blandishments.)

And will you tell your mother that I really believe that you will have large eyes as lovely as she has and a character as sweet as hers, and that I really will not spoil you when you reach the age of 2, since I detest spoiled children.  And even if I do spoil you, I shall do so surreptitiously in order to avoid a look from her like the spoon-look.

I am so happy to have made the acquaintance of Nicolson the family man after having known for so many years only Nicolson the political observer.  He is wonderful in both roles but so much more interesting to me now that I have a clearer, more complete idea of his character.  Each page of this book was a delight; it is, without a doubt, one of the best books I have read this year and one of the best diaries I have ever read.  Nicolson has certainly earned his place alongside Ritchie on my bookshelf.

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Vita Sackville-West

In November 1909, when Harold Nicolson was twenty-three years old, he wrote his parents the following letter, detailing his vision of idyllic Edwardian domesticity. It does sound rather appealing (I can’t imagine how irritating a life without hot shaving water would be) but not enough for Nicolson to actually pursue such a future for himself. His marriage to Vita was famously unconventional and (aside from a bumpy first few years) very happy, a far cry from what the young man thought he wanted:

I dined with the Alstons last night.  They were simply delightful.  I do like matrimony.  A nice cheap little house in Draycott Avenue with white walls and an old French overmantel with a Romney, some coloured china and large chintz chairs.  On the table good silver and a simple but excellent dinner.  I am sure it is the sort of life in which one’s shaving water would always be hot, and one’s breakfast adequate.  And then what a joy in the evenings as one leaves the Office to fly back to a big chair, a book and a little cuddly wife who wouldn’t talk.  And then about 7 p.m. the children would come down and the mother would read them stories and I would go to sleep.  In the evening at dinner she would tell me how wonderful I was, and I would accept her admiration, and go to sleep after dinner with no one to laugh at me.

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vsw and hn

Though the 1930s and early 1940s were arguably the most exciting years of Harold Nicolson’s life, and certainly the most significant of his political career, he seems never to have lost focus on what was most important to him: his relationships with his sons and with his extraordinary wife.  The Harold Nicolson Diaries are full of effusive praise for Vita and I think this passage from September 1942, pondering with pride the family they have created, is one of the loveliest in the book:

I do not think that, except for Winston [Churchill], I admire anyone as much as I admire you.

I remember your saying (years ago) that you had never established a complete relationship with anyone.  I don’t think you ever could – since yours is a vertical and not horizontal nature, and two-thirds of you will always be submerged.  But you have established, with your sons and me, a relationship of absolute trust and complete love.  I don’t think that these things would be so fundamental to the four of us were it not that each one of the four is a private person underneath.

I have often wondered what makes the perfect family.  I think it is just our compound of intimacy and aloofness.  Each of us has a room of his own.  Each of us knows that there is a common-room where we meet on the basis of perfect understanding.

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Credit: NY Times

Sissinghurst (credit: NY Times)

We’ve had a letter to a granddaughter, a letter to a son, and now we have a letter to a daughter-in-law. Harold Nicolson wrote this welcoming note to Philippa Tennyson-d’Eyncourt, his son Nigel’s then-fiancée, on April 1, 1953:

I am glad you are coming to Sissinghurst on Saturday, as it will give us time to get to know you and to break through the awful embarrassment inseparable from such introductions.  You will find us shy, eccentric, untidy, but most benevolent.  You will find Sissinghurst the strangest conglomeration of shapeless buildings that you ever saw, but it is an affectionate house and very mellow and English.

Viti says that she asked you to call her “Vita”, and you must call me “Harold”.  That is far simpler.  I always called my own beloved father-in-law “Lionel”, and it seemed quite natural after the first ten years or so.

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“Mummy” (Vita Sackville-West)

Another excerpt from The Harold Nicolson Diaries, this time a little piece of fatherly advice, written in July 1926 to Nigel Nicolson (age nine):

I do hope you won’t make Mummy nervous by being too wild.  Of course men must work and women must weep, but all the same I do hope that you will remember that Mummy is a frightful coward and does fuss dreadfully about you.  It is a good rule always to ask before you do anything awfully dangerous.  Thus if you say, “Mummy, may I try and walk on the roof of the green-house on my stilts?”, she will probably say, “Of course, darling”, since she is not in any way a narrow-minded woman.  And if you say, “Mummy, may I light a little fire in my bed?”, she will again say, “Certainly, Niggs”.  It is only that she likes being asked about these things beforehand.

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