- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 5, 2006


By James Lees-Milne, edited by Michael Bloch

Trafalgar Square, $24.95 (paperback), 336 pages


At 85, British man of letters James Lees-Milne (1908-1997) still had dreams of glory — or,

at any rate, one particular dream recorded in his diaries that involved himself and a friend standing beside a castle on a “Claude-like lake” in a “beautiful but tempestuous” landscape:

“The knowledge that I was capable of writing a great book surged over me … I fear this derives from a feeling that lately assails me that I shall never write a book again, good or bad.” The books he had written included an engaging memoir, a handful of interesting novels and a number of excellent biographies and works of architectural history.

Although he may not have achieved his ambition of writing a “Great Book” on the order of “Middlemarch” or “War and Peace,” Lees-Milne did manage to create a major work that seems likely to ensure his place in literary history: the diary he had been keeping from 1942 until the final month of his life.

Although the 20th century gave rise to an impressive array of diaries, from the poignant and irreplaceable testimony of Anne Frank to the sexually explicit and self-analytical journals of Christopher Isherwood, Lees-Milne is probably the diarist who comes closest to being the Samuel Pepys of his age. Spontaneous, personal and intimate, but at the same time knowledgeable, gossipy and urbane, Lees-Milne’s diaries effortlessly convey the flavor — or, rather, the many flavors — of the times and places in which he lived.

Appointed the first Country Houses Secretary for Britain’s National Trust before he was 30, Lees-Milne got to examine a variety of stately old castles, manors and other patrician abodes being considered for inclusion in that program, and in the course of doing so, he got to know more than a few members of the British aristocracy.

Lees-Milne also numbered among his friends and acquaintances many notable figures of his era, including Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, Lib/Lab politician Roy Jenkins and his wife Jennifer, poet John Betjeman, art historian Kenneth Clark and novelists Anthony Powell, Henry Green, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Nancy Mitford (not to mention her siblings Tom, Diana, Pamela — a.k.a. “Woman” — and Debo, later the Duchess of Devonshire).

Not only do Lees-Milnes’ diaries abound with memorable and revealing portraits of these people — and others, such as Prince Charles, Mick Jagger and Edward Heath, whom he’d met but knew less well — but they are also filled with candid revelations and thoughtful reflections on his own life.

Lees-Milne’s outwardly undramatic life was actually an unusual one in many ways. A staunch conservative, politically and culturally, he had converted to Roman Catholicism in his 20s, but in later years, returned to the Church of England for a number of reasons, one of them being his dismay at the Catholic Church’s refusal to countenance birth control.

(When one of his Catholic friends claims he and his wife are thinking of going to India to help Mother Teresa, Lees-Milne tells him, “I thought it would only be a good move provided they both dispensed condoms in the streets of Calcutta.”)

For most of his life, Lees-Milne’s libido was primarily, though not entirely, focused on members of his own sex, but in 1951, he married Alvilde Chaplin, herself quite a fascinating character, who’d been the paramour of the Princesse de Polignac. At the time of meeting Lees-Milne, Alvilde was married and had to obtain a divorce.

It must have been a something of a love match, insofar as it was not to Alvilde’s financial advantage and conflicted with Lees-Milne’s commitment to a Church which didn’t sanction divorce. Although their marriage, marked by dalliance on both sides, was far from perfect, it lasted devotedly until Alvilde’s death in 1994.

“The Milk of Paradise,” the final volume of Lees-Milne’s diaries, covers 1993-1997, the last five years of his life and provides a poignant account of the hardships and losses of old age and widowerhood, along with Lees-Milne’s usual lively opinions and sharp perceptions of the world around him. “Woman” and Debo are among the friends who figure prominently in this late phase of his life.

His morning routine, including bed-making and preparing breakfast for himself and his ailing wife, leaves this octogenarian feeling exhausted even before he gets down to working on the volume of his diaries he’s editing for publication.

Also: “wearing thick brown shoes with leather soles tires me greatly; I now need light shoes with springy crepe soles. Twenty years ago the idea of worrying about the weight of my shoes would have made me hoot with laughter. Also, I try to save myself journeys in this minute house, tending to postpone fetching a tool from the outside shed until I also have to bring in some fire-lighting paper — except that I do not remember, and end up making two journeys anyway.”

Indeed, one is amazed to read of the luncheon parties Alvilde managed to give at this time, even though she was suffering from a serious heart condition.

Lees-Milne’s are definitively the diaries of a somebody rather than a nobody, a somebody who’s sociable, observant and very much a part of the world he observes. Yet they are also filled with poignantly intense private moments, like this entry from January 1994:

“While reading … I nodded off for a split second. During this flick of an eyelash I suddenly felt desperately lonely without Mama and Papa and wondered how I could get through life without them. Then I remembered that I had not been wholly forsaken, as A.[lvilde] was still with me. The relief was so great that I actually cried. Now I ask myself sadly, how long shall I have A for? How long shall we remain united?”

Sadly, only a couple of months later, Lees-Milne comes home to find his wife lying dead on the ground in front of their house. And not long after that he endures a second blow with the death of his dear friend “Woman.”

Staunchly royalist, Lees-Milne deplores the press’ treatment of Prince Charles during the “Camillagate” scandal: “… sex chat between participants is no more the business of others than how they behave on the lavatory seat. No one should be judged by it.”

But later, having watched “this well-meaning middle-aged man” in an interview struggling “to get the words out and “writh[ing] with intellectual deficiency, wrinkling his forehead and making grimaces,” he has his doubts as to whether the hapless prince is really equipped to handle the role of being a constitutional monarch.

Reading this final volume of the diaries, you can see that, in Lees-Milne’s case, one of the benefits of growing old was the opportunity to reflect upon — and sometimes subtly revise — his opinions and even indeed his idea of himself:

“… I thought how curious it was that I, as an old eunuch [because of cancer surgery], am now totally heterosexual. I am drawn exclusively to the mystique of the female persona, whereas the male physique revolts me and the male persona has little allure.

“I suppose that, by a tilt of the scales, a nudge from the tip of an angel’s wing, I would have been wholly ‘normal’ from adolescence onwards. Perhaps it is just as well that this was not the case, as I would probably have been a nasty, intolerant, anti-queer young fogey.”

He even has some second thoughts about his own snobbery. Reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Mrs. Jordan, the Irish actress who was mistress of the Duke of Clarence, the future King William IV, bearing him ten illegitimate children, he reflects:

“Really, the Royal Dukes were ghastly, selfish, stupid, uncultivated and gross. Mrs J an angel of sweetness. All those children … I have come to the conclusion that the aristocracy have always been [scatological expletive], and that in my youth I was too beguiled by them.

“Nonetheless, I still maintain that the decent and educated ones attain a standard of well-being and good-doing which has never been transcended by any other class in the world.”

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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