- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 22, 2005


By Norman Rose

Jonathan Cape, $35.58, 383 pages


“Harold Nicolson” by Norman Rose is, obviously, a new book about Harold Nicolson. Lots of readers already know lots about him. His published diaries and his son’s “Portrait of a Marriage” have amply introduced Americans to Nicolson. He was a major minor figure in British politics, literature, foreign affairs (and gardening) during the 1930s and ‘40s. Readers now know him mostly because of his bizarre marriage to the novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West.

We’ll get to that presently. Born in 1886 and growing up in Victorian-Edwardian Britain, Nicolson arrived in life with, as Mr. Rose observes, “his mouth full of silver spoons.” The Nicolson lineage was Scottish, notable and ancient, although not wealthy. His father was a hereditary baronet, a famous diplomat and eventually (1910) occupied the very prestigious office of permanent undersecretary of the Foreign Office. Harold’s mother came from a grander family. Irish, her people owned great estates. Her brother-in-law had been governor general of Canada, ambassador to France and viceroy of India.

After an early childhood spent at his father’s legations in Tehran and elsewhere, Nicolson went on to a typically sad, parentally neglected English boyhood which was made even more unhappy by being small and not good at games. He was sent to a public school patronized exclusively by the upper levels of the aristocracy, one which conducted a vigorous and obsessive campaign against student homosexuality. In Nicolson’s case it was unsuccessful.

After finishing Balliol College, Oxford, he entered the family business, the Foreign Office. Entry was extremely selective. It required perfect fluency in several languages, considerable knowledge of diplomatic history, extensive writing skills, a private income and initial service as a clerk. There, Harold was pretty much an instant success. He wrote fluent memoranda; he joined the right clubs and made many friends among the right people. Nicolson was a good house guest and constantly invited to weekends at famous country homes, among them Knole, the huge Kent estate which was the seat of the Sackville-West family. He rose quickly in the Foreign Office and was considered so valuable that he was exempted from World War I military service. Afterwards, he was a behind-the-scenes star in the British delegation to the Peace Conference of Paris. He even wrote a quite good but very critical book about it — “Peacemaking 1919.”

Just prior to the war Nicolson had married Vita Sackville-West whom he met at a dinner party at Apsley House, the home of the Duke of Wellington. After a lengthy and rather passionless courtship, they were married in the chapel at Knole. As aristocratic as his lineage might have been, Nicolson was almost plebeian compared to that of his bride. He was very sensitive about this. As a Sackville descendant Vita came from a family which had been grandees since the beginning of the 17th century. At one time very rich, the family wealth had been reduced but was still considerable. Vita had literary ambitions which she would soon commence successfully to satisfy. In time she became a well-known poet and novelist. She is not now read. “All Passion Spent” was probably her best known book.

It is hard to comprehend what first attracted Harold and Vita to each other. They were both active homosexuals and, despite having two sons together, they each had long strings of lovers. Vita’s were either high-born or else were literary women with whom she fell in love, discarded abruptly, then quickly went on to another. One was Virginia Woolf. Harold’s were much less distinguished and several times, they gave him gonorrhea.

Vita disliked accompanying Harold to his overseas diplomatic postings and generally withdrew herself from that life. Harold continued his career but on his own time he wrote biographies of Verlaine, Swinburne, Tennyson and Byron. A hard and facile worker, Nicolson wrote remarkably fast — 40,000 words a week while simultaneously performing his diplomatic duties and maintaining an active sex life. Finally, in 1929, Harold resigned from the Foreign Office. His excuse was that he was living beyond his income — a very easy thing to do on a Foreign Office salary — and could close the gap only by borrowing from Vita’s difficult and censorious mother.

Nicolson went to work as a columnist for a Beaverbrook newspaper and also gave lectures, did radio talks, wrote magazine articles and books. Altogether, he published 33 books, mostly biographies. Several sold very well. Harold lived in a well-appointed London flat. He went everywhere and had access to all of the British great of the 1930s and ‘40s. Winston Churchill was his friend and King Edward VIII a close acquaintance — although Harold never regarded him highly. In 1935 Nicolson was elected a member of Parliament and, briefly, served as a subcabinet level minister in Churchill’s wartime government. Eventually he was awarded honorary doctorates from a half-dozen universities. In 1953 he was knighted.

But what of his marriage? The fact is that It positively blossomed in these circumstances. Harold and Vita had no sex life between them, but they developed a deep and affectionate friendship with many commonly pursued interests. The most important of these was their gardens. An interest in, and talent for gardening is not unknown among the English. The Nicolsons excelled at gardening. With money from her mother, Vita bought Sissinghurst, an abandoned old Kentish manor house the grounds of which had recently been used as a garbage dump by the villagers.

In years of weekend labor, aided only by a small staff, they converted the place into a lovely home surrounded by six acres of wonderful gardens, designed and planted by them. Now a National Trust property, it is every year visited by tens of thousands, many of them Americans. It is among the greatest gardens in Britain, which certainly says a lot for the Nicolsons’ abilities.

Harold lived in London on the weekdays, joining Vita on the weekends at Sissinghurst where she wrote and gardenened. While apart they wrote almost daily letters to one another. Their letters were filled with news, advice, concern and always with affection. They had pet names for each other. He was “Hadji;” she was “Mar.” They were caring parents to their two sons. They even gave a very positive BBC radio talk on advice for a happy marriage. Despite what must have been a fairly good income from their writing and lecturing, money was always a concern for Harold. He regarded them as being impoverished, but there are various levels of impoverishment.

The two of them, but particularly Harold, were terriffic snobs. He would scarcely talk to any man who had not attended a top drawer public school. He said he disliked Jews but, in a fine distinction, claimed to oppose anti-Semitism. Nicolson lectured repeatedly and profitably in the United States but loathed meeting its citizens. The only thing that he had disliked about his Oxford years was that there had been so many “blacks and Rhodes Scholars.” A non-success as a politician, he did not have the “common touch” nor did he want to have it. He did not like the lower orders and they did not like him, as he found out when his district voted him out of Parliament. Nicolson also disliked Japanese, Turks, Persians, Arabs, Slavs and Catholics.

Harold and Vita had a private word, “bedint,” which is a corruption of a German verb for to be a servant or to wait upon. They used it to refer to anyone they considered common or vulgar. That, of course, included any person who was not of aristocratic birth — most of the rest of the world. The fact that a person voicing attitudes such as this could be a popular, accepted and modestly important member of his nation’s ruling class speaks loudly about the class-ridden society of pre-World War II Britain.

Vita died in 1962. Harold died six years later at the age of 81. Norman Rose, a distinguished Israeli biographer who works in Nicolson’s period, does a good job with this book. There are plenty of published primary sources dealing with Nicolson’s life and Mr. Rose has mined them expertly and come up with a number of his own. There is new stuff in this book. Harold Nicolson was deeply disappointed at what he had accomplished in his life. He had not reached his full potential. He had not become foreign secretary. He had not written a powerful and memorable book. He was, as a candid friend told him, a “national figure — but of the second degree.”

Mr. Rose’s careful summing up about this man who really had considerable talents and posessed every possible social advantage, is that at his core Harold was too soft. He was not a competitor. He was unable to adjust to the emerging British meritocracy. His circle of friends was exalted, but very narrow. This is an interesting biography about a very unusual man.

Richard M. Watt writes and reviews European history of the early 20th Century.

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