James Lees-Milne – Diaries 1942-54

I previously reviewed Lees-Milne´s fantastic Some Country Houses and their Owners which is made up of extracts from his diaries about his visits to stately homes to assess their suitability for the National Trust, I loved it so much that I asked for the diaries for Christmas.

Now, the diary of an employee of the National Trust might sound boring to you but these diaries are absolutely fascinating.  Lees- Milne was not some stereotypical National Trust fogey but an interesting character;  a bisexual Catholic who married a lesbian and seemed to spend a lot of his time hanging out with society types and getting all the gossip on their scandalous lives. His diary is both humourous and tragic and full of interesting observations about life in World War II and post-war Austerity Britain.

Now even  with my socialist tendencies,Lees-Milne’s writing is able to make me sympathise with the plight of these aristocrats who after the war were unable to maintain their properties and were forced to donate them to the National Trust.  He was often accused of being a snob and this is a valid criticism, his hatred of the new post war Labour government is evident and there are also some shockingly stuck up remarks about the working classes such as preferring the company of well-bred, stupid people to that of intelligent common people. So remarks such as;

“This evening the whole tragedy of England impressed itself upon me.  This small, not very important seat, in the heart of our secluded country, is now deprived of its last squire.  A whole social system has broken down.  What will replace it beyond government by the masses, uncultivated rancorous , savage philistine, the enemies of all things beautiful?  How  I detest democracy.  More and more I believe in benevolent autocracy.”

are both poignant and concerning, considering as well that he mentions canvassing for the Fascist Oswold Mosley in 1931. He quotes other views on the political situation that seem to be typical of Britain at this time;   “It’s only Catholic countries that go Communist because of the poverty and discontent fostered by the priest.  No Protestant countries become dictatorships”.

The aristocracy are described warts and all.  During a meeting with Lord Berwick at Attingham they have a  discussion about ghosts; “He asked me did I think it possible that one could have been locked in the housemaid’s cupboard?  and why would another want to disguise itself as a vacum cleaner?  Really he is a delicious man”. This interpretation of Lord Berwick being slightly batty is later backed up by another comment ,”Poor Tom, he should not have lived in this age.  He cannot drive a car, ride a bicycle, fish or shoot.  He would have stepped in and out of a sedan chair so beautifully.”

James Lees-Milne with Pamela and Nancy Mitford

Unsuprisingly as a NT representative, Lees-Milne experiences a great deal of snobbishness from the aristocracy towards himself;

“Lord Fairhaven is served first, before his guests, in the feudal manner which only the son of an oil magnate would adopt.  Presumably the idea is that in the event of the food being poisoned the host will gallantly succumb and his instant death will be a warning to the rest of the table to abstain.”

He is both damning and witty about others, his publisher Charles Fry is described as  ” a phallus with a business sense” and he goes on to discuss, “He said he had been away 11 and a half weeks and had slept with 40 people during that time.”  Now that´s quite a high total, you tend to think of people as this time as repressed but this diary certainly shows it was not the case, in fact virtually everyone seems to be nymphomaniacs or mad. He also throws in comments on Hilaire Beloc setting himself on fire whilst visiting him,  and  in a deadpan manner concludes,”In similar circumstances he died recently”. Comments on  other people are very cutting;”He has moreover a thin, flat behind which implies shallowness of character.”

His meeting with George Bernard Shaw  to discuss the possible donation of his house to the NT is  extremely humourous and Shaw is depicted as a lovely  character. He shows Lees-Milne a tombstone inscription in his local church reading, “Cut off ere her prime” aged 76, and explains that this is what  persuaded him (GBS) to come and live there so he would have more of  a chance of reaching his 90th year.

Lees-Milne also discusses the nature of diary writing, ” Said more people should keep diaries, but the trouble was that the most unscrupulous diarists were too scrupulous when it came to putting personal truths on paper”  He argues the disadvantage of being frank is that you are not always viewed by the reader in a positive light, but admits that  even within these diaries he withholds things. This a theme that William Boyd addressed in his novel Any Human Heart.  There are some entries that left me feeling slightly melancholy for a long time such as his description of his fathers´death from cancer, a funeral of someone who died alone,or a description of a woman trying to donate her worthless possessions to the NT;

” I left her feeling more depressed than words can describe.  When the old have to live in soulless drabness,…alone, ridiculous and unwanted, they are pitiable.  When they are slightly truculent, to keep up their endurance, it moves me beyond compassion to a sadness which haunts me for days.”

These are certainly fascinating diaries, although interestingly they become slightly less exciting and there are fewer entries once he gets married  although he soon goes back to his old ways in his unconventional marriage.  A brilliant read for anyone wanting to find out more about the period, the National Trust or just to read some fantastic diaries.

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One response to “James Lees-Milne – Diaries 1942-54

  1. Pingback: A brilliant take on diary writing – Any Human Heart – William Boyd | Rotten Books

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