Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Lees-Milne’s centenary

Today is the centenary of the birth of James Lees-Milne, one of the most celebrated and prolific literary diarists of the 20th century. To mark the anniversary, the ‘official James Lees-Milne website’ says, an exhibition has been organised near Oxford, and a new edition of the diaries is about to be published. This blog, however, will mark the day by using Lees-Milne’s own words, taken from birthday diary extracts.

Lees-Milne was born on 6 August 1908 into a wealthy family in Worcestershire, and was educated at public schools and at Oxford University. After working at Reuters for a while, a job he hated, he joined the National Trust, and was instrumental in its acquisition of many important buildings, not least Sissinghurst. He also pursued a writing career, producing novels, some of them autobiographical and books on architecture. However, he is best remembered for his diaries, initially published with some hesitation. They cover more than 50 years of his life, and have been published in many volumes.

Lees-Milne’s private life, involved with men and women, was colourful from an early age. In 1951, though, in his 40s, he married Alvilde Chaplin, a prominent gardening and landscape expert, and a lesbian. Their marriage is said to have been similar to that of Harold Nicolson (another famous literary diarist) and Vita Sackville-West, who lived at Sissinghurst, both of whom were, in fact, witnesses for James and Alvide at their wedding. They were also their lovers at one time - James with Harold in the 30s, and Alvide with Vita in the 50s! James and Alvide lived an unconventional life, only partly together, in France, and then at Alderley Grange where Alvilde created a garden, in Bath, and finally at a property on the Badminton estate. She died in 1994, and he in 1997.

The Diary Junction and Wikipedia have short biographical summaries on Lees-Milne, but the ‘official James Lees-Milne website’ created by Michael Bloch, Lees-Milne’s literary executor, carries a much more detailed biography. It also notes that two events will take place in August 2008 to mark the writer’s centenary.

Firstly, the third and last volume of a new edition of the diaries - edited by Bloch himself and covering the years 1984-1997 - will be published by John Murray. Incidentally, I am astonished to find that John Murray - one of Britain’s ‘most distinguished literary publishers’ - has no website presence, other than a small paragraph on Hodder Headline’s website. Thus, it is necessary to go to Amazon to find the publisher’s blurb which says: ‘Witty, waspish, poignant and self-revealing, James Lees-Milne’s last diaries contain as much to delight as the first, and confirm his reputation as one of the twentieth century’s great English diarists.’ Secondly, the centenary is being celebrated, apparently, by the calligrapher Andrew Moore giving an exhibition devoted to Lees-Milne at St Katherine’s Church, Chiselhampton near Oxford.

Here, though, are a few of Lees-Milne’s own words, extracted from birthday diary entries.

1943 - ‘My birthday. I am thirty-five. The horror of it! Except for my incipient baldness, fortunately on the crown of my head and on account of my height not always noticeable, I do not think I have changed much. My figure is the same as it was fifteen years ago.’

1944 - ‘My birthday, and the less I think about it the better. Only members of the family remember; for I suppose they are the only people to whom one’s existence does matter just a little.’

1973 - ‘Today I became a pensioner. If I wished to get a job I couldn’t. Henceforth I receive a pension from the state.’

1988 - ‘I am eighty. Have been so since 1:30 this morning. A beautiful day dawns, misty sunlight. . . . On front page of literary section [of The Daily Telegraph] an article about me by sweet Hugh Massingberd, which gives me enormous pleasure. Too eulogistic, but most welcome.’

1990 - ‘My eighty-second birthday. Heralded by Hugh Massingberd’s interview with me yesterday in The Daily Telegraph, which I can’t fault for kindness and understanding.’

(Massingberd was an Editor of Burke’s Peerage and considered an innovative obituaries editor for The Daily Telegraph. He died almost exactly 10 years after Lees-Milne, last December, and most of the obituaries about him, such as the one in The Independent, mention Lees-Milne for one reason or another.)

Here is a last Lees-Milne entry, not one from his birthday but just two days before it in 1973, which exemplifies both his high literary pretensions and his interest in sex: ‘It is too easy to be impatient with and censorious of sex when one is 65: the squalor of it, the repetition, the inanity. Yet there’s ground for disagreement that to be in communion with God all carnal appetites should be eschewed because the very actions of fornicating, over-eating, over-drinking are ephemeral, finite. Lusts being mortal are in consequence negative, without injury to man’s immortal gnosis. Whereas cerebration, devotional exercise, worship being perdurable and victorious remain unaffected by them. I daresay the old Fathers would dispute this ratiocination.’

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