I read the first volume of James Lees-Milne’s edited diaries, Ancestral Voices, which cover the years 1942-43, and was both repelled by his spiky and judgemental personality, and intrigued by his account of social history and the Blitz experience. But the diaries were very edited, and JLM assumed that his readers would understand his allusions and the truncated names of the people he was writing about. Several generations later, we need more footnotes. So I turned to his biography by Michael Bloch, to work out what I was missing, and to see if I felt the need to read any more of the Lees-Milne diaries.
Reader, I do not. I have had my fill of JLM’s life now and am more repelled than I was before. I am also having deep thoughts about the nature of biography, and the biographer’s role in constructing a life in retrospect.
Back to basics: James Lees-Milne was ‘the man who saved England’, as Country Houses Secretary for the National Trust from 1936 to 1966. He was perfectly suited to the job of persuading the owners of the great houses of England and Wales to hand over their homes and a big commitment of money to save them from ruin, demolition and/or collapse. In private life he was a very active bisexual, and later in life married Alvilde Chaplin, a society hostess who became a much-admired gardener and garden designer. These three aspects of his life dominate the biography: JLM’s passion for English domestic architecture as built for the aristocracy, sex with a great many men and a few women, and his tempestuous relationship with his wife.
The most arresting anecdote – repeated several times in the biography – to describe the Lees-Milne marriage is that in his twenties and thirties JLM was mentored by, had a long relationship with, lived with, and (much later) wrote the biography of Harold Nicolson; and that Alvilde (apparently given this name in revenge by her mother after her father’s mistress, a Norwegian singer) separated from her first husband Anthony Chaplin to live with Princess Winnie de Polignac until the latter’s death, then married JLM (which involved a Papal annulment of her marriage that took years to be granted), and then began a tempestuous affair with serial seducer Vita Sackville-West, who was the devoted wife of Harold Nicolson. Alvilde also bitterly resented JLM’s relationships with men, in fact with anyone (according to Bloch). He depicts her as an excellent manager of her and JLM’s homes, a socially-active hostess and a superb gardener. She was also a domineering and unreasonably demanding woman who routinely steamed open letters to and from her husband (I did boggle at this but since Bloch repeats it as a fact from his own experience and one referred to by other friends of JLM, I suppose it must be true), and wrote to the young men with whom JLM was involved to warn them off her husband, and basically did not allow JLM to live the emotionally and sexually fulfilling life he wanted and deserved.
I feel there is another story there that we aren’t hearing.
Michael Bloch inserts himself into the biography as one of JLM’s last platonic relationships, to explain his role as JLM’s literary executor, and how and why he knows so much about the later years of JLM’s life. It is possibly useful to be told in detail when and how Alvilde was horrible to Bloch, and how she had to resign herself to being pleasant to him, as an illustration of the trials that JLM endured. It could also be Bloch’s triumph over the witch. Bloch is an important witness to the background of JLM’s life, but he uses this position to make increasingly waspish (an over-used but very useful word for writing about JLM, I find) and aggressively pointed remarks about Alvilde, her daughter and some other women in the context of how horrible they were to JLM. I’m sure this isn’t a normal requirement of biography where the author knows the subject.
Let’s move on to the aristocracy. The biography is simply packed with dukedoms and titles, and so one needs a certain awareness that name X is the family name of title Y to fully understand the relationships and feuds being discussed. Bloch is good at pointing out the relationships in the complex network of history and homes and marriages and names, but the effect is to make this biography an adjunct to Burke’s Peerage. Pages of lists of names become indigestible, and give the impression of a recital from an engagement diary.
The third major aspect of JLM’s life, his passion for architectural history, is dealt with most objectively by Bloch, and consequently I found these sections the least annoying to read and the most illuminating for what they said about the subject, rather than about the writer. But even then, Bloch descends into bitchiness. JLM is hair-raisingly indiscreet and rude about a great many people in the one volume of the Diaries that I’ve read. I was not surprised that they or their relations might have been upset at the publication of his opinions. Bloch describes how none of JLM’s books have been sold in National Trust properties because of the (actually quite reasonable) objections raised by influential people over JLM’s remarks about them, their houses, their relations, in the Diaries, and naturally the Trust had to knuckle under and ban JLM’s erudition and unique witness from their properties and shops to ensure the continued favour of the great and the good whom he had offended. (I paraphrase.)