Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Chamberlain’s diary letters

It’s Neville Chamberlain’s birthday, or would have been if he were alive to have reached twice three score years and ten. A Conservative politician best known for his short term as prime minister and a policy of appeasement in the run up to the Second World War, he also served as Minister of Health and Chancellor of the Exchequer between the wars. During this inter-war period, he wrote weekly letters to his sister, and these have been published in four (expensive) volumes, described by the editor as ‘diary letters’. Diary letters?

The Number 10 website provides a brief biography of Neville Chamberlain. He was born 140 years ago today (18 March) into a political family: his father, Joseph, would become a mayor of Birmingham and a cabinet minister, and his half-brother Austen would hold various high posts in government including Chancellor of the Exchequer. After being schooled at Rugby and Mason College, Birmingham, Neville went to the Bahamas to manage the large family estate growing sisal (for making rope). On returning to Britain, he became a prominent manufacturer in Birmingham, and then, in 1915, was elected Lord Mayor.

In 1918, aged 49, Chamberlain was returned to Parliament as a Conservative MP. Although offered a post in government, he refused to serve under Lloyd George, and remained a back-bencher until 1922 when he was appointed Postmaster General. For most of the 1920s and 1930s, he went back and forth between the positions of Minister of Health and Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1937, he succeeded Baldwin as Prime Minister. Conflict in Europe, though, was not far off. 

In 1938, Chamberlain went to meet Hitler, the German chancellor, in Munich. He came back with an agreement that Britain and Germany would never again go to war. ‘I believe,’ he declared, ‘it is peace for our time.’ However, the success of his appeasement policy was shortlived, since Hitler was soon to march into Prague. The subsequent invasion of Poland led Chamberlain to declare war on 3 September 1939. Thereafter, he proved unable to counter mounting criticism of his leadership, and thus resigned in May 1940. Later the same year he died of bowel cancer.

It was not until just 60 years later, though, that a first volume of The Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters was published, by Ashgate Publishing. This first one was subtitled The Making of a Politician, 1915-20. A second volume followed the same year subtitled The Reform Years, 1921-27; a third volume in 2002 subtitled The Heir Apparent, 1928-33; and the fourth and last in 2005 subtitled The Downing Street Years, 1934-40. Each one was edited by Robert Self, and costs £90. The full set is available from Ashgate for £229.50.

Ashgate says: ‘As a primary source of historical evidence and insight, it is difficult to overstate the value and importance of Neville Chamberlain’s diary letters to his sisters [Ida and Hilda]. They represent the most complete and illuminating ‘insider’ record of British politics between the wars yet to be published. . . Beyond the fascination of the historical record of people and events, these letters are extremely valuable for the remarkable light they throw upon the personality and character of the private man lurking behind the austerely forbidding public persona.’

But what of this idea of ‘diary letters’? Interestingly, there is, online, a full explanation by Robert Self, the editor, of why he chose to use the term rather than simply calling Chamberlain’s letters ‘letters’.

The second volume of the set was reviewed in 2002 by David J. Dutton for the Institute of Historical Research, and this review is available online. Although very positive about the book, Dutton did express reservations about the title, which he said was ‘somewhat misleading to the extent that Chamberlain, unlike his half-brother, did keep an extensive, if not continuous, diary, and the primary purpose of his letters to Ida and Hilda was not to record events for posterity but to keep them informed, to share his concerns with two women of considerable intelligence and good sense, and to use his sisters as a sounding board for his own thoughts and plans.’ Dutton does admit, though, that the letters form ‘an almost continuous record and Chamberlain did, on occasion, clearly use them as a substitute for entries in his diary’.

Also on the Institute’s website is Self’s response to the review. ‘It is difficult to quibble about either the general tone or the specific content of David Dutton’s extremely generous review’, he says, nevertheless, ‘there is one point raised in Dr Dutton’s review which does merit clarification’, and this concerns the claim that the use of the title ‘Diary Letters’ is ‘somewhat misleading’.

Self explains that, in part, the adoption of the term ‘diary letters’ represented ‘a logical extension of my earlier edited volume of letters from Austen Chamberlain to the same sisters which he commenced in February 1917 after enquiring whether he ‘could write something like a diary letter’ to them’. He also notes that the practice of writing regular ‘diary letters’ did not start in the Chamberlain family with the generation that included Austen, Neville and their sisters, but earlier. Moreover, he adds, Neville Chamberlain explicitly noted in a letter on New Year’s Day 1921 that the correspondence with his sisters had ‘the advantage of making a sort of diary’.

Self goes on to examine what he considers a more fundamental point raised by David Dutton, namely ‘the relative significance and historical value of the diary letters to Hilda and Ida when compared with the five relatively slim volumes of political journals which cover a similar period’. Despite a similarity in the period covered, he says, the content and even the phrasing of the political journals ‘invariably lack the depth, the detail and (crucially) the almost unfailing weekly consistency of the record contained in the diary letters to his sisters, which so painstakingly reconstructed all of the events, activities and experiences of the preceding week’.

More generally, Self argues that the letters have specific diary qualities. Here is the final paragraph of his response.

‘Yet beyond the far greater continuity, depth and length of the record contained in the diary letters, their outstanding value and importance is derived from the very nature of the epistolary act and the closeness of the relationship with his sisters which underpinned his devotion to it. Thus, whatever the similarity in terms of information content, the solitary act of keeping a diary did not necessarily encourage the same uninhibited expression of emotion and inner feelings that so often emerges in an intense and revealing manner in the diary letters to his sisters. Only here do we really see more than a glimpse of the complete inner man so fastidiously concealed from the world beyond his immediate family. Indeed, as Austen noted in 1931, even within the family it was well known ‘how tongue-tied in matters of sentiment’ his half-brother was. Yet the intense natural confidence and reassuring intimacy of Neville Chamberlain’s bond with his sisters encouraged this supremely reticent man to indulge a well developed propensity for ‘epistolary garrulity’ (as he called it in August 1921), which permitted him to reveal as much about his innermost thoughts, hopes, fears and ambitions as he was ever capable of exposing to anyone - perhaps even to his adoring wife. Ultimately, the unique value of the diary letters is derived from precisely this additional, intensely personal insight into that hidden, warmer and more human side of the truly enigmatic personality which lurked behind a public persona that all too often appeared to be cold, abrasive and supremely unlovable.’

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