Friday, February 24, 2017

Escapism and the life of James Lees-Milne

There's nothing like a book when it comes to escapism, necessary diversion during these winter days of discontent and political turmoil. So I was happy to receive, earlier this week, a well-used copy of Michael Bloch's  2009 biography of James Lees-Milne, who is both a preservationist and literary hero of mine.

This is another of those Amazon.com temptations, priced under $10 with postage and handling included. A tag inside shows that it was previously housed at, then withdrawn as reader interest waned by, the City of York Libraries. Bloch, the author, is Lees-Milne's literary executor.

Lees-Milne (1908-1997) seems to have been constantly reinventing himself. He was a full-time employee from 1936 until 1950 (with the exception of two years of national service during World War II) of Britain's National Trust, almost single-handedly in some cases persuading the eccentric owners of some of England's great country houses to pass them into the care of the nation at a time when many of these grand buildings were being knocked down.

Although he continued to work part-time for the Trust, he launched his literary career about 1950, writing architectural history, biography, memoirs and much more. But he is best known as a brilliant diarist and some 12 volumes of these remain in print. I've read some of these, have a couple of volumes around here somewhere and now have my sights set on acquiring his first three volumes, commencing with "Ancestral Voices."

Lees-Milnes also grew up, attended school, worked, fell in love and/or slept with an amazing range of characters --- including various Mitfords and the actor John Gielgud. So there's a good deal of gossip here, too.

His domestic life offers many examples of the twists and turns. James was a protege and sometimes lover of British politician, diplomat and writer Harold Nicolson. Nicholsen was in turn married to Vita Sackville-West, poet, novelist and iconic garden designer (Sissinghurst) who carried on a long and passionate affair with Virginia Woolf, literary giant of the Bloomsbury era.

In 1951, Lees-Milne married Alvilde, Viscountess Chaplin, nee Bridges, with Nicolson and Sackville-West in attendance. Some years later, Alvilde and Vita launched a passionate affair of their own. And so it went.

All of the parties involved in these marriages were entirely aware of the tastes and inclinations of their partners, so despite many ups and downs the relationships endured.

In the end, a shared passion for gardening drew both Harold and Vita (at Sissinghurst) and James and Alvilde (first at Alderly Grange and later at Essex House) together and both couples closed out their lives bound by ties of deep affection.

All of which suggests that both gardening and books have immense capacities to heal.

No comments: