The figures with whom both these books are concerned, though all three Englishmen with aristocratic family backgrounds, active in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, are in some ways very different: Julian Grenfell was a talented and attractive youth of great promise who was cut off in 1915, aged twenty-seven, by the First World War. He and his younger brother Billy, who was killed a few weeks later, came to symbolize for a good many of their contemporaries the tragic waste of that war. Julian himself had welcomed the war: “It is all the most wonderful fun,” he wrote shortly after reaching the front; “better fun than one could ever imagine. I hope it goes on a nice long time; but pigsticking will be the only tolerable pursuit after this or one will die of sheer ennui.”
Four weeks before he died, Julian wrote a poem called “Into Battle” which became quite well known, and which Nicholas Mosley rightly calls “almost unique amongst poems of the First World War in that it shows no outrage against war.” (It is to be found in the current Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse, edited by Philip Larkin.) Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, poet, traveler, and upholder of unpopular causes—perhaps best known today for his Diaries (1920)—despised and abhorred the First World War from its beginning. When it broke out, he was seventy-four years old and was destined to live eight more years. His younger cousin, George Wyndham (1863-1913), was a poet and critic as well as a Tory politician of some note whose Irish Land Act of 1903, a constructive piece of legislation which made it not only possible but feasible for tenants to purchase holdings from their landlords, has recently been called with much justice “the pinnacle of Conservative reform in Ireland.”
Three very different people, then. Yet there exist important similarities among them, quite apart from the fact that all three were poets, romantics, and, when all is said and done, political conservatives. The authors of both books have had access to family papers hitherto unavailable, and both are especially interested in the social and psychological atmosphere of that period before the outbreak of the First World War which used to be known as a golden age of optimism and opulence but has increasingly been found by historians to contain not only great misery “downstairs,” but seeds of violence and destruction behind the glittering façade “upstairs.”
As a part of the setting within which their subjects play their parts, both authors conjure up that lost world of the “seasons”: hunting and shooting in the country during the winter, parties and balls in London until August, more shooting in Scotland in the autumn; country houses with retinues of servants such as the Grenfells’ Taplow, the Wyndhams’ Clouds, and Blunt’s Crabbet; and gatherings there of self-designated sets of the elect like the “Souls,” among whom wit, gossip, and persiflage were indulged in by the likes of Julian’s mother, A.J. Balfour, and George Wyndham, or Blunt’s “Crabbet Club” which revolved around poetry, lawn tennis, and elaborate jesting.
This was a world of special languages. For the Grenfells and their intimate friends to “spangle” was to flirt, “heygate” was to be conventional, “brahms” to be condescending. “Dentist” meant a heart-to-heart talk; “manflash” meant the ability of married women to be with men on their own. The impression that one is reading fiction, not biography, is reinforced by some of the names of ancillary characters: the Wyndhams’ nanny was Mrs. Horsenail, the Grenfells’ Mrs. Wake; Wyndham’s tutor at a crammer’s in Sussex was a Mr. Faithful; among the most ardent admirers of Julian’s mother, Ettie Grenfell, was one “Tops” Hartopp.
It is, in fact, Ettie Grenfell (later Lady Desborough) who dominates her son’s biography just as she tried to dominate her son. She also appears in Egremont’s book, since George Wyndham was for a time (1892-1893) one of her numerous admirers and probably one of her lovers. It is hard to be sure about the nature of the relationship between them or, indeed, between Ettie and her other “manflashes.” We know that Wyndham belonged to “Class I” of her devotees. But their correspondence is so filled with fantasies and conceits (Wyndham wrote to her as if he and she were characters in a novel), and with references to a never clearly defined pattern of joy, sin, guilt, repentance, and forgiveness that one cannot even venture to guess at approximate proportions of ritual, romance, and reality.
In any event, there is nothing very surprising about the fin de siècle and Edwardian convention which permitted married women of the upper classes to take lovers as long as some discretion was observed by all concerned. What is of greater interest to the social historian is to be reminded by these two books of the ripe and rich epistolary mode which usually formed a part of such affairs and which, to a large extent, was a reflection of the literary taste of the time. Thus George Curzon, a future Viceroy of India, to Sibell Grosvenor, then a married woman some years his senior, later to become George Wyndham’s wife: “Sweet woman I pray for you this night that no thorns or briars may hinder your path through this thorny world but that your simple pure and Godlike nature may fill all that it meets or touches with its own sweetness and purity—as it does me—aye and fills me too with a longing that grows weary and that is beyond the power of words.” And thus, ten years later (1893), George Wyndham, now Sibell’s husband, to Ettie Grenfell: “Dear ‘April’. For so I must be allowed to call you—April you have been and must ever be! An April of sunshine and no rain; of laughter and no tears; all radiant and dazzling blossoms robbed from May.”
Reading these and other such specimens serves as a reminder that the prewar years in England were, at least rhetorically, considerably less inhibited than our own time. A friend of Wyndham’s recalled after his death that his good looks “were of a kind to take one’s breath away.” One of Julian Grenfell’s Eton masters wrote that the very sight of the boy in the street “made his eyes fill with tears,” while one of his Oxford contemporaries remembered that “he was the most magnificent human thing I have ever seen”—words reminiscent of a description of his mother by the wife of the Governor of Madras (in 1892) as “the most perfect type of womanhood that has been evolved out of modern times.”
In contrast to Max Egremont’s book, which is primarily descriptive, Nicholas Mosley’s biography has the great merit to approach, with a continuously probing intelligence, the totems and taboos of a period and a class that indulged in such hyperbole. Women like Ettie took lovers; their husbands went off to shoot animals and birds by the thousands. Meanwhile, unmarried young men were forbidden by the prevailing code to make love to unmarried young women; though, as readers of V. SackvilleWest’s Edwardians will recall, the same code sanctioned the availability of married women, usually considerably older. What did it all mean? That women like Ettie as well as her lovers required worship, she to be reassured about her fear of loss, they to provide substance for their otherwise empty lives? That the roles they played were those of goddess-women and child-men? That hunting and shooting were analogues for war as well as an escape from marriages that had lost their reality? That “the taboo on sexuality for the young except in ways that were likely to be distraught was the means by which the old kept their power over the young”?
Mosley’s analytical bent is relentless, and on occasion the result may strike the reader as portentous. Politics is always “empty” (has it ever been otherwise?), fantasy is everywhere; and from schoolroom to boudoir to hunting field, the First World War all too inevitably looms. Still, we must remember that Mosley’s quest in this book is a very personal one: “I wanted to understand,” he writes, “what made someone so full of life and irony [as Julian] in the end adore war: what was his experience of people, that made him feel closest to horses and dogs.” As Mosley puts it, “it must be clear to anyone who reads this book that I have some love for Julian Grenfell. He seems to have achieved in a short life a rare authority.”
Julian was certainly a young man who impressed many of his contemporaries with his extraordinary combination of good looks, charm, intelligence, and athletic prowess. Yet, before reading Mosley’s biography I had quite frankly had grave doubts whether it could possibly have been worth the effort. Some years ago I had had the opportunity of reading Ettie’s privately printed Pages from a Family Journal (1916), a compendium of reminiscences, letters, and diaries by means of which the grief-stricken mother commemorated her two dead sons. Inside this particular copy was a letter from someone who confessed to having been greatly moved by the book; but then went on to ask what would have become of the Grenfell brothers, had they survived the First World War. Her answer: they would have been two more club bores. And why? Because, with all their talents, they had not learned to live and love fully and completely. Their writings showed a kind of permanent immaturity. And for this the writer of the letter blamed the English public school ethos which inculcated conventional views and attitudes.
I was much impressed with the skepticism of this letter, but now, having read Mosley’s biography, I am no longer so sure that my reaction was correct. For one thing, Mosley points out that “Ettie often quoted letters falsely in the Family Journal, to the effect of making the family seem more adoring than they were, especially to herself.” Readers of the journal as printed do not get a sense of that battle between mother and son which played such a crucial role in forming Julian’s character and outlook. Furthermore, Mosley, in going through the papers on which his book is based, came across seven essays Julian had written at Oxford in 1909 (aged twenty-one) whose very purpose it had been to take issue with the intellectual and emotional conventionalities of his time. It is these two aspects of Julian’s short life—his struggle with his mother and his rebellion against the values she and her society represented—which lend power and substance to Mosley’s biography and which make Julian himself worth writing about.
Julian’s quarrel with his mother, which began toward the end of his time at Eton, centered around the fact that he wanted to live his own life, while she wished to involve him in her social life, to make him part of what someone aptly called her “stubborn gospel of joy.” Ettie never ceased insisting that everything must always be for the best; since to suppose otherwise would be unbearable. “Reality,” she wrote to one of her admirers, “though seas of grief may first be plunged through to find it—is always joy.” If this Panglossian gospel meant compromises with truth, so be it. (Margot Asquith commented that “Ettie has told enough white lies to ice a cake.”)
For his part, Julian found the gospel of joy naive and preferred the solitary life to his mother’s smart set. “I think,” he wrote her in the spring of 1909, “the one heygately imperative duty is to be true to oneself and to one’s own things; that’s the one thing one must not tamper with.” She saw him as a dashing young patrician, an outstanding boxer and huntsman, the cynosure of high society, the darling of the “Souls.” Indeed, he was all these things; and no doubt enjoyed the role he was playing a good deal of the time. But he also became profoundly dissatisfied with the values of those, his mother in particular, who so relished his playing that role without granting him a true life of his own.
He expressed this dissatisfaction in a book, never published, which Mosley rightly calls “an astonishing work for a boy to have written in 1909.” In it he attacks the powerful conventionalism, that “hall-mark of the English,” which made it one’s supreme duty to do as others do. The result of that conformism was to substitute “a stupid, formal makeshift world for the real world; it turns life into a game, and a bad game at that.” The word game is appropriate here; for it was competitiveness that powered the engine of convention and supplied the essence of the world of “etiquette, of manners, of social advancement; its atmosphere is the pungent atmosphere of afternoon tea.” Competitive sports, such as pheasant-shooting and tennis, formed a part of that world because they depended on formalities and scorekeeping. As against these sports, Julian praises hunting, coursing, shooting for food, and fishing because through them man learns to find a connection between nature and himself. The real purpose of sport, Julian wrote, was “to take us back to the land, back to real things, bringing the elemental barbaric forces in ourselves into touch with the elemental barbaric forces of nature.” This the strong, self-reliant individual must strive to do.
He must also take nothing on trust, unless he can see his own, not society’s, reason for it. He must “harden his soul” and defy the forces which the conventionalists will always bring forward against him; usually including appeals to both duty and self-sacrifice as well as competitiveness. But these ideals were contradictory, and therefore belonged to the realm of fantasy, not to that of reality. Mosley’s gloss here—for he admits that the thought is implicit rather than explicit in Grenfell’s book—is that a man could only be both ideally competitive and self-sacrificing in something like a major war. This fits in with the author’s general thesis regarding the connection between the Edwardian upper-class ethic and the First World War, where alone that ethic could find resolution. Julian may or may not have been convinced of this in 1909. What he certainly emphasized was the need to confront reality—including the reality of one’s own primitive passions: “Ideas and ideals must be based on fact, not fancy.” For both Darwinians and theists, their first duty ought to be to look facts in the face and to adapt themselves to them as best they might, rather than sinking into thoughtless submission or escaping into fantasies.
As might have been expected, Ettie hated her son’s book, which she rightly saw as an attack on her and her friends’ ways of life and thought. One of Julian’s Oxford contemporaries condemned it, for his part, because he felt that Julian had “gone about with his intellectual fly-buttons undone.” Various periodicals refused to publish the essays. As a result, Julian sank into a state of severe depression, some believed madness. Thus his brother Billy, when reading Nietzsche some time later, commented that it was “just a pirated reprint of the book on philosophy written by Juju when he was temporarily deranged.” (The fact was that Julian’s depression ensued after his family and friends made light of his book, not while he was writing it.) There is, in any event, surely something extraordinary about all this—the scion of the Desboroughs (as they now were), the exemplary golden youth destined cheerfully to fight and die for king and country on the battlefield, here revealed as a Nietzschean rebel and a Dostoevskian hero to boot, deemed mad by his nearest and dearest because he tried to speak the truth about the inner falseness of his society.
Julian came to terms. “I made a proposal the other day to the Almighty of a bargain,” he wrote from Italy where he had gone to recover from his breakdown, “that I should become the perfect ‘heygate’ on condition of being returned to health and vigour.” To which he added: “Be careful not to miss the pathos of this letter.” That bargain was evidently struck, though not, by the second party to it, for long. Julian recovered his health and spirits, joined the Royal Dragoons, served in India and South Africa, and was mortally wounded at Ypres in 1915. The typescript of his essays remained unread in a tin trunk where Nicholas Mosley found it in 1974.
Curiously enough, George Wyndham, too, turned against what he thought the Desboroughs stood for. But his attack came as from a true-blue Tory of the gentry class, one of the “die-hards” in the epic struggle against the Parliament Bill of 1911, who felt that the passage of that bill (which curbed the power of the House of Lords) meant the end of the old England he had loved. “Now we are finished with the cosmopolitan press—and the American duchesses and the Saturdays to Mondays at Taplow,” he wrote to his wife at the time, “and all the degrading shams. When the King wants loyal men, he will find us ready to die for him. He may want us. For the House of Lords today—tho’ they did not know it—voted for Revolution.” (He would not have been pleased to know that H.G. wells, after a visit to Taplow in the course of the following year, assured Ettie that “if a social revolution should occur…and I should be Dictator… Taplow Court shall be sacred and one delightful family at least secure from the guillotine.”) When Wyndham’s son got married in 1913, his father wrote to a correspondent: “Percy has done all I ever asked. I told him not to marry an American, or a Jewess, or an heiress, but just an English young lady. So he has conformed.”
But it would be wrong to confine even a capsule account of Wyndham’s political and social attitudes to the years after the great Liberal election victory of 1906 when by no means only he but many other conservatives of his class began to feel increasingly isolated and embittered. His Irish Land Act had been a truly progressive and conciliatory measure largely of his own making which he had managed to get accepted by the Irish nationalists and the Conservative party against the vehement opposition of many of his fellow Tories. Some never forgave him. It had taken real courage, and a spirit of independence, to do what he did. His cousin Wilfrid Blunt, not usually in agreement with him on matters affecting the empire, called the measure “the first piece of quite honest legislation for Ireland which will have been carried through parliament in my recollection, and the certain prelude, however little the Government may have it in their minds, some day of Home Rule.”
Blunt, of course, might have been expected to support any act that helped Irish tenants. In 1887 he had been sentenced to two months in prison because he had defied Arthur Balfour’s Crimes Act and had attended a “proclaimed” meeting in favor of Home Rule held on the Clanricarde estates at Woodford in Galway. Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland, was then Wyndham’s direct superior as well as friend. And Wyndham angrily reported to his father that “Wilfrid is apparently temporarily out of his senses.” Whether Blunt was any more out of his senses then than Julian was out of his twenty years later is a question each student of the period must answer for himself. Blunt was certainly a consistent anti-imperialist who had sympathized with Indian and Egyptian national aspirations and who, when the Boer War broke out, was to remark that the only people he really cared for in South Africa were the blacks; and that, as between two white thieves, his sympathy was with the Boers. In a counterblast to Kipling and other jingoistic poets he wrote these memorable lines:
The ignoble shouting crowds, the prophets of their Press,
Pouring their daily flood of bald self-righteousness,
Their poets who write big of the
The White Man’s Burden, Lord, is the burden of his cash!
Meanwhile his cousin, George Wyndham, was actively helping to pursue the war against the Boers as under-secretary at the War Office.
While Blunt, then, was certainly the most actively rebellious among the three personalities who are the subjects of these two books, his radicalism had its limitations. With the exception of his views on Ireland, Egremont writes, his domestic politics were soundly Conservative:
He always thought of himself as a Conservative Nationalist, being generally in favor of the landowners (unless, as in Ireland, they were cruel or incompetent) and the House of Lords. Socialism had little appeal for him, although its rhetoric could momentarily stir his emotions.
Like Wyndham, Blunt wanted to maintain the old landed order at home. The thought of the ruin of his own family estates, his son-in-law wrote, was an unthinkable disaster.
Egremont points out that both Blunt and Wyndham were supreme examples of the romantic temperament—one (Blunt) with a vision of self-determination for oppressed nationalities, the other (Wyndham) with a vision of a great beneficent empire. The vision was always there. “What was occasionally lacking was the capacity to delve under the glitter of a great conception to the less obvious intricacies beneath.” Is it possible to argue that here is a lack of “reality” similar to that noted by Julian Grenfell in his critique of the social conventions of his time?
One comes back to Julian in the end because unlike Blunt and Wyndham, who, as Egremont concludes, “share a common oblivion,” he is not so easily put out of mind. Not, to be sure, because he was himself an important figure. His achievements, such as they were, must be regarded under the heading of “promise” and, as such, do not begin to match those of the Cousins. One could neatly, and not inaccurately, sum up the three men as conservative romantics, mainly of interest for the limits of their respective departures from what was expected of them; and conclude that Julian was the least significant, partly because his “rebellion” was all on paper and in his mind and, in any event, very temporary.
And yet…. More than forty years ago George Dangerfield published his classic Strange Death of Liberal England 1910-1914. In it he depicted in unforgettable terms the strain of violence that began to characterize so many different aspects of English society and politics before World War I, which, for many, came almost as a relief. It was in 1910, he argues, that “fires long smoldering in the English spirit” suddenly flared up. To his regret, Dangerfield could not then devote a chapter to the purely social scene:
Many of its chief actors are still alive, which makes them difficult to handle, and most of the really significant memoirs, papers, diaries, letters, and so forth have still to be published. But one thing I am sure will eventually be established. That extravagant behavior of the postwar decade, which most of us thought to be the effect of war, had really begun before the war.
Mosley’s book supplies one of those missing documents. And the questions he raises about the possible connections between the realms of interpersonal psychology on the one hand, and public postures and events on the other, must, sooner or later, be faced by those historians who, like Nicholas Mosley, wonder why in the twentieth century there were not a few intelligent people who welcomed and enjoyed wars.
March 23, 1978