NIGEL NICOLSON (1917 - 2004)  and his parents


Nigel Nicolson
(Filed: 24/09/2004)

Nigel Nicolson, who died yesterday aged 87, was a Tory MP in the 1950s, a founding director of the publishers Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and the author or editor of numerous stylishly written books; he was, however, best known for Portrait of a Marriage, his account of the unorthodox union between his parents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.

The book, which contained a frank account of his parents' infidelities and homosexual affairs, caused a furore when it was published in 1973, and the author found himself the subject of much obloquy, accused of betraying his family and his class.

Private Eye parodied Nicolson's self-justifying foreword: his protestations of filial piety and a claim that he had consulted those whose opinions he most respected was appended by a footnote identifying his bank manager. A lewd ballad went the round of the clubs of St James's which ended: a lesbian's offspring begat by a queer/ But, self-made, a son of a bitch.

Yet in fairness, many felt he was justified in publishing an account which placed his mother's passionate affair with Violet Trefusis, which had lasted for three years, in the context of an enduringly successful marriage which had lasted 50. Moreover, Vita's own private account of her love for Violet (which her son had discovered in a Gladstone bag after her death) had, it seemed, been intended for publication.

Even Nicolson's critics, such as the writer Rebecca West (who declared that Vita's account should have been left in the Gladstone bag) did not attribute base motives to the book's author. His uncompromising integrity, indeed, was one of Nicolson's most endearing characteristics, mainly because it was as often applied to his own disadvantage as to that of others. A wise, kindly, somewhat shy man, he accepted, occasionally with bemusement, his privileged life and heritage, yet managed to avoid the self-centredness and snobbery that were such unattractive characteristics in his parents.

By nature nonconformist, he also had a stubborn streak of moral courage which led him to stand up for the truth even when it was inconvenient, a quality which lent him a natural nobility.

The older brother of the art historian Ben Nicolson, Nigel Nicolson was born in London on January 19 1917.

When he was about three, the family moved to Long Barn, a tumbledown 15th-century farmhouse near Knole, his mother's family home in Kent. In 1932, they moved permanently to Sissinghurst Castle and the house and its surrounding gardens became his parents' joint enterprise until their deaths.

Neither parent really understood their sons, although Harold Nicolson was an attentive father by the standards of the time. Their emotionally distant mother had no time for little boys, even refusing to be alone in the same room as her son Ben. As a result, the children spent most of their early years in the company of nannies and governesses. Nigel attributed his inability to sustain close relationships to his mother's coldness towards him.

He made his first acquaintance with Bloomsbury when, as a young boy, he was recruited to the dinner table to make the numbers up to 14, and placed opposite Lady Ottoline Morrell. Horrified by this apparition, he asked his mother in a whisper whether "that lady" wasn't a witch. "Of course she's a witch," said Clive Bell, to young Nicolson's mortification. "We have always known she was but nobody has dared say so." Aged 11, Nigel became Virginia Woolf's companion on butterfly hunting expeditions while she was writing Orlando, her fantasy about his mother.

Quentin Bell would later invite him to edit Virginia Woolf's letters, a project on which he collaborated with Joanne Trautmann, and which culminated in the publication, to great acclaim, of six volumes of correspondence between 1975 and 1980.

Vita Sackville-West's extraordinary relations included her mother, Lady Sackville, who had moved to White Lodge in Rottingdean, Hampshire, after leaving her husband in 1919. As children, Ben and Nigel spent many cold afternoons in her house waiting for lunch at 5pm, when it would be served by the under-gardener, the cook invariably having given notice that morning.

When Lady Sackville died in 1936, she bequeathed the house to Nigel; he would use the proceeds of its sale to help finance the launch of Weidenfeld and Nicolson and to buy the Shiants, some uninhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides which he would later pass on to his son Adam.

At the age of eight, Nicolson was propelled into the "concentration camps of boarding schools", first to Summerfields, Oxford, where he was taught by Cecil Day Lewis and Leonard Strong, the novelist. He then followed his brother Ben to Eton, where he fagged for Charles Villiers, the future chairman of British Steel, demonstrated his independence by refusing to be confirmed with the other boys, and won a place to read Modern History at Balliol, Oxford.

At Oxford, Nicolson's initial shyness made his first year a misery, but in his second year he began to come out of his shell. He spoke at Union debates and organised the university branch of his father's party, the National Labour Party, counting among his friends Denis Healey and Edward Heath. He also rowed for his college, but did little work and graduated with a Third.

In the early years of fascism, Nicolson had rather admired the dictators. For two years in succession he had joined Nazi friends in torchlit processions in Berlin. "There is something awfully naive and charming and sincere about [Hitler]," he wrote to his parents. "I cannot help reacting against all the negative criticism of the regime that one hears in England. Nag, nag nag, the whole time."

At Oxford his attitude changed and the Munich crisis clinched his recantation. In April 1939, having been rejected for the RAF, he enlisted in the Officer Cadet Reserve and after the declaration of war, was commissioned into the Grenadier Guards. He spent much of the war in reserve, but in 1942 was involved in the Tunisian campaign and was promoted to brigade intelligence officer in the rank of captain. In February 1944, his brigade was ordered to Italy, where they fought their way northwards, finally entering Austria on VE day.

His post as intelligence officer gave him an opportunity to observe, at close hand, the two Field Marshals, Montgomery, whom he disliked, and Alexander, whom he much admired. He was later forced to modify his opinions somewhat while researching his biography of Alexander, which was published in 1973, the same year as Portrait of a Marriage.

As he studied Alexander's papers, he came to like Alexander more as a man but began to detect a certain willingness to kow-tow to higher authority and take the easy way out in a crisis. Conversely, he came to admire Montgomery as a soldier and strategist, even as he disliked him as a man. His study, Alex: The Life of Field Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis came to be widely regarded as Nicolson's best book.

At the end of the war in Europe, Nicolson's brigade was involved, as part of the British 5th Corps that occupied Carinthia, in the hand-over to the Red Army of about 40,000 anti-Soviet Cossack prisoners - men, women and children - and, to Tito, of some 30,000 Yugoslavs who had opposed him during the civil war. The majority of these people were either murdered or died in captivity.

The incident had its sequel in 1989 when Nicolson agreed to give evidence on behalf of Count Nikolai Tolstoy during his libel battle with Lord Aldington, staff officer at the time, whom Tolstoy had accused of organising the betrayal of the Cossacks, knowing their likely fate.

Nicolson had kept a record of events, from which it was clear that British soldiers had lied to their captives about their destination as they were herded on board cattle trucks that would transfer them to their enemies.

He recalled how, when Tito's partisans emerged to take control of the trains, the Yugoslavs "began hammering on the inside of the wagon walls, shouting imprecations, not at the partisans but at us, who had betrayed them. This scene was repeated day after day, twice a day. It was the most horrible experience of my life."

In agreeing to give evidence at the libel trial, Nicolson made it clear that, although he would support everything Tolstoy said about the enormity of the action, he could not accept his allegation that Aldington had arranged every detail of it or was mainly responsible for the decision.

The libel case was a traumatic experience for Nicolson. When he testified with painful honesty how, to his eternal shame, he had agreed to lie to the victims about their destination, he was asked by the unsympathetic judge whether the court was meant to suppose that he was an habitual liar. Aldington won the case, but never forgave Nicolson, a near neighbour, for appearing as a witness on the other side; and Nicolson found himself being snubbed by old friends who took Aldington's side.

Nicolson returned to England in July 1945 ahead of his battalion, as he had been commissioned to write the official history of the Grenadier Guards, which was published in 1949. When his father lost West Leicestershire in 1945, he was persuaded to enter politics and stood unsuccessfully for the same seat as a Conservative in 1950, and for Falmouth and Camborne in 1951. He was subsequently adopted for Bournemouth and entered Parliament in a by-election in 1952, with a majority of more than 14,000.

Nicolson was never comfortable with the Conservative tag. Yet he managed at first not to cause too much offence and in 1955 was re-elected with an increased majority.

In 1953 he had married Philippa, the daughter of Sir Gervais Tennyson-d'Eyncourt, and bought a house near Christchurch where a daughter was born in 1954 and a son in 1957.

The crunch came in 1956 when, having committed the almost unpardonable offence of supporting a Labour private member's Bill to abolish hanging, he then abstained in the vote of confidence in the government over Suez. His actions led to demands for his resignation from his constituency association. When he refused, his executive sent a telegram to the Prime Minister repudiating their member and pledging loyalty to the government.

In 1959, Nicolson, with the support of the chairman of the Tory Party, Lord Hailsham, insisted on the matter being put to a postal ballot of members. But in the meantime, he had become embroiled in a controversy of an entirely different nature.

In 1949, he had founded, with George Weidenfeld, the publishing firm of Weidenfeld and Nicolson. The firm struggled in its early years but the book that made the firm famous and contributed to Nicolson's debacle in Bournemouth was Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, the controversial tale of a 12-year-old sex kitten with whom a middle-aged man falls in love.

Nicolson did not wholly believe in the book and had argued against its publication, but he was compelled to defend it when the firm took the decision to publish just as he was trying to save his political career. The two controversies peaked simultaneously and the postal ballot went against him by 3,762 votes to 3,671.

For four years from 1960, Nicolson worked full-time for the publishing firm, but resigned in 1964 before it became really successful, though he remained an outside director until it was sold to Anthony Cheetham in 1992.

Instead he wrote books which, in his estimation, probably contributed more to the success of the firm than he had by editing. His biography of Alexander and Portrait of a Marriage were serialised by the Sunday Times, and in 1977 Mary Curzon won the Whitbread Prize for biography. The firm also published his richly illustrated World of Jane Austen in 1991. Meanwhile, family responsibilities were taking up more of his time. After his mother Vita died in 1962, his father Harold Nicolson suffered a mental collapse and Nigel and his family moved to Sissinghurst to help care for him.

He had come to an arrangement with the Treasury and the National Trust whereby Sissinghurst was transferred to the Trust in part payment of death duties, with the family retaining tenancy of part of the building. With family income at a low ebb, he suggested to his father that he should publish his diaries and offered to edit them. The three volume diaries, published by Collins became best-sellers and Nicolson devoted most of the proceeds to sustaining his father until his death in 1968.

In his final homage to his parents he edited Vita and Harold, the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson (1992). But by this time, many reviewers had had about all they could take of the Vita and Harold menage.

"Just when you think it is safe to stick your head above the parapet to get a gulp of air," wrote an exasperated Dirk Bogarde, "bang! crash! wallop! and once more one is cowed by salvoes of the dreaded V-3s, Vita, Violet and Virginia . . . Why does an elderly gentleman see fit to rake through the ashes of his parents' love and expose their very private thoughts to all and sundry, for, as Vita would have said, 'the delectation of the common herd'?"

In his later years, Nicolson turned to journalism and wrote the Spectator's Long Life column and a Time of My Life column for The Sunday Telegraph. His autobiography, Long Life, was published in 1997.

Nigel Nicolson's marriage ended in divorce in 1970 and he never attempted to marry again, although he continued to be a charming and entertaining companion to his many friends. He seemed to love being surrounded by tourists and became something of an institution at Sissinghurst, where he was known to lean out of his study window to invite visiting parties of Americans for tea.

Nigel Nicolson was appointed MBE in 1945.

He is survived by his son, the writer Adam Nicolson, and by two daughters.


Interesting links:

Vita Sackville-West



Three letters

Six poems

Virginia Woolf's Description of Vita Sackville-West


Violet Trefusis


Biography and bibliography

Four letters 

Letters of Violet Trefusis – 11 pages in italian

Vita (Victoria Mary) Sackville-West (1892-1962)






Nigel Nicolson

Sep 30th 2004
From The Economist print edition

Nigel Nicolson, writer and publisher, died on September 23rd, aged 87

His first view of Sissinghurst Castle was one Nigel Nicolson never forgot. It was a wet day in 1930; he was 13. With his mother, Vita Sackville-West, he had trudged round the ruins of a manor house and tower with a few rows of cabbages for a garden. “But we haven't got to live here, have we?” he asked.

He had to. His mother and his father, Harold Nicolson, had decided to make Sissinghurst their grand project. Harold designed it; Vita planted it; and Nigel and his brother, Ben, became the holiday labourers. Each day his father, who had been eminent in the diplomatic service, taught them how to dig ponds and clear brambles. Then at 6pm, between bath and bed, Nigel would visit his mother in her writing room. Wearily laying her pen aside, she would talk to him.

Vita and Harold were on the periphery of the Bloomsbury set they belonged to. The Bloomsberries passed through young Nigel's life like occasional exotic birds: Lady Ottoline Morrell, feathered like a witch, at dinner, or Virginia Woolf, thin and curious, peppering him with questions. He would go with Virginia on butterfly hunts, and showed her the family portraits at Knole when she was gathering material for “Orlando”.

All this might have been incidental to Mr Nicolson's life. For years he carved out his own, different, track. After war service in Tunisia, Italy and Austria, he joined an exiled Viennese Jew, George Weidenfeld, to publish Contact magazine and then, after 1950, to form the publishing house of Weidenfeld & Nicolson. At the same time he entered politics, becoming the Tory MP for Bournemouth in 1952. He wrote a biography of Field Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis, under whom he had served, and always thought this his best book. Having famous parents was undoubtedly an advantage, he wrote later. It had opened doors for him. But “children can escape”.

They could not escape quite so easily. In 1962, after his mother's death, Mr Nicolson found a locked Gladstone bag in her writing room. In it was a notebook containing an account of her affair with Violet Trefusis. Letters from Violet, and from many other lovers, were stacked in a cupboard nearby. Ever since the publication of “Orlando” in 1928, it was known that Vita and Virginia Woolf had been lovers; unwittingly, Nigel himself had helped in the making of that “love letter”. His father, too, had had homosexual affairs, and yet his parents had stayed contentedly together.

The book he wrote in 1973 on the basis of those papers, “Portrait of a Marriage”, became a sensation, and he found himself enmeshed in the cogs of the Bloomsbury industry. He edited his father's diaries not once, but twice; he published his mother's letters and, in six volumes, the letters of Virginia Woolf. On tours of America, he would be introduced as the last survivor and heir of the Bloomsbury group.

The silver vase

He was not its last survivor, but he was its heir in unexpected ways. Between garden chores at Sissinghurst, Harold had dinned into him the importance of truthfulness, no matter how awkward: a Bloomsbury virtue in relationships, at least. Nigel took that attitude into both politics and publishing, and made a name for himself by defying government.

He was billed as a Tory, but believed he should not commit his conscience until he had had experience of Parliament. This caused nothing but trouble in Bournemouth, his staunchly Tory seat beside the sea. He was the only Tory backbencher to support Sidney Silverman's bill to abolish hanging, and one of the few to refuse to back the Tory government over Suez. When Bournemouth's Tories at last got rid of him, in 1959, his father sent him a silver vase inscribed Aliis licet, tibi non licet: “Others may do it, but you must not”.

His constituents were all the more upset because, at the same time, Mr Nicolson was trying to publish “Lolita”, Nabokov's tale of a 12-year-old sex-kitten ensnaring a middle-aged man. He meant it as a test case to expose the absurdities of the Obscene Publications Act; but he never defended the book as full-heartedly as Lord Weidenfeld did. He could not decide whether it was bravely original, or pornography. Its sales saved his publishing house, but he knew that both his parents were appalled by it. That weighed with him.

His biggest test of conscience, however, came in a different case. Immediately after the war he had been involved, in Carinthia, in the forced repatriation of thousands of Yugoslavs and Cossacks. The British had sent them home knowing they would be killed; most of them had been. In 1992, in the course of a libel trial, Mr Nicolson was obliged to admit publicly that he, too, had lied to the Yugoslavs about their fate. Realising they had been betrayed, they hammered desperately on the walls of the cattle trucks. It was, he said, “the most horrible experience of my life”.

It occurred to some that he might have betrayed his own parents almost as cruelly. He had not needed to unlock the Gladstone bag and scatter their infidelities to the world. But Mr Nicolson felt sure his mother had meant the papers to be published, and that the story of his parents' marriage would be an inspiration to others. As their custodian, he sat in the Sissinghurst gazebo with a tranquil heart.


Nigel Nicolson Dies; Writer, Publisher, Lawmaker, Aristocrat

By Matt Schudel

Monday, September 27, 2004; Page B05

Nigel Nicolson, who spent his life at the pinnacle of British intellectual and political society, died Sept. 23 at his grand country estate, Sissinghurst Castle in the English county of Kent. No cause of death was disclosed.

An author, soldier, publisher, politician and preserver of the British patrimony of grand houses and gardens, Mr. Nicolson, 87, practically defined the ideal of the aristocratic English gentleman.

Descended from baronets and lords, he grew up in the brilliant cultural milieu of Bloomsbury and from childhood was acquainted with the British and European elite. Yet in spite of his many achievements and his long life -- his memoirs, published in 1997, were called "Long Life" -- it was Mr. Nicolson's fate to live in the shadow of his even more illustrious, and unconventional, parents.

Mr. Nicolson chronicled their remarkable lives in the best-known of his books, "Portrait of a Marriage" (1973), in which he revealed that both of his parents freely indulged in homosexual affairs. Yet somehow they remained married and -- improbable as it may seem -- deeply devoted for 49 years.

His father, Sir Harold Nicolson, was a leading British diplomat, member of Parliament and historian. His mother, Vita Sackville-West, was an artist and writer best remembered for her tempestuous liaisons with women, most notably the novelist Virginia Woolf. They reached an amicable arrangement such that Woolf became a friend to the family, even accompanying young Nigel on butterfly hunts.

Mr. Nicolson was born in London on Jan. 19, 1917. With his father often away on official business and his mother otherwise engaged, he usually saw his parents only once a day, at 6 p.m. His mother, hardly a paragon of maternal virtue, blithely mixed remoteness with outright neglect.

"No one," Sackville-West wrote to her husband in 1928, when Mr. Nicolson was 11, "would want to have entire charge of two children for four months of the year."

As a result, young Nigel and his older brother, Benedict, grew up in a world of governesses and boarding schools. Mr. Nicolson attended Eton, the training ground for the British upper class, before graduating from Balliol College at Oxford University.

In 1932, his parents moved to Sissinghurst, an Elizabethan castle they restored from near ruin. With "Harold planning, Vita planting," in Mr. Nicolson's words, they returned the once-magnificent gardens to their former splendor. Mr. Nicolson would live at Sissinghurst the rest of his life, even after it was made part of the National Trust, a system for preserving Britain's stately houses. Its gardens, which attract 200,000 visitors a year, are perhaps the most renowned in England.

From 1939 to 1947, Mr. Nicolson was an officer in the British army and was dispatched to Palestine, Tunisia, Italy and Austria during World War II. To his lasting shame, he did nothing to prevent the transfer of some 70,000 Russian and Yugoslav dissidents to Communist authorities after the war, knowing they would face almost certain death. Four decades later, he would testify against a fellow British officer, a onetime friend, accused of war crimes in the incident.

In 1948, Mr. Nicolson helped found Weidenfeld and Nicolson, which became a prominent British publishing house that released the works of Saul Bellow and Lady Antonia Fraser, as well as the first British edition of Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita."

After serving, with no great distinction, as a Conservative member of Parliament from 1952 to 1959, Mr. Nicolson turned his attention to his publishing company and to his own literary efforts. After his mother's death in 1962, he discovered a cache of her writings that he used to compose "Portrait of a Marriage," which was considered scandalous in its revelations of the easygoing sexual mores of the British culturati.

He was accused of betraying his parents and his class, yet the book's popularity helped propel Mr. Nicolson to a new career as a cultural historian, particularly of the bohemian world of his parents. He edited his father's diaries, as well as six volumes of "The Letters of Virginia Woolf." Both projects are considered among the finest personal writings in modern English literature. Mr. Nicolson also wrote biographies of military figures and writers, as well as books on history, travel, gardening and British manor houses.

In 1992, the same year his publishing company was sold, he published a volume of his parents' correspondence. He also began, at 75, to write popular columns in British papers and magazines. Modest and somewhat melancholy, these personal writings became the basis of his well-received memoir, "Long Life."

He wrote a book about Queen Elizabeth II in 2003, and this year he edited a collection of his father's letters. It was published three weeks before his death.

Unlike his parents, Mr. Nicolson led a rather proper life. His only marriage, to Philippa Tennyson d'Eyncourt, ended in divorce. Survivors include two daughters and a son, writer Adam Nicolson, with whom Mr. Nicolson collaborated on a 1987 travel book about the United States, "Two Roads to Dodge City."

If he didn't shed the memory of his celebrated parents, Mr. Nicolson certainly lived up to the epitaph he chose for himself: "It has not been a wasted life. It is studded with a few triumphs and many moments of delight."


Volume 39, Number 21 · December 17, 1992


By Nigel Nicolson, Reply by Robert Craft

In response to Love in a Cold Climate (November 19, 1992)

To the Editors:

Robert Craft's review of my parents' letters, Vita and Harold, is generous in one respect: he has read the book ["Love in a Cold Climate," NYR, November 19]. But he has read it with an initial bias, perhaps derived from the BBC's dramatisation of Portrait of a Marriage, that both were unutterable snobs. I invite him to define more exactly what he means by that.

He starts his review with the admission that we are "not to worry" about the charge of snobbishness as "most of it is too far away to be hurtful," but from then onwards he forgets this wise caution. What is considered snobbish in the 1990s was not in the 1920s. He is applying the standards of today to those of yesterday, just as he might condemn Jane Austen for snobbishness because she implies that no gentleman should be seen trying to make money.

By selective quotation he can of course make Vita and Harold appear snobs even by Edwardian usages. When Vita, aged 21, enjoys a grand party complete with footmen, Mr. Craft holds it against her. When, thinking that she might die in childbirth, she tells Harold how to distribute her jewels among her friends and lists them, this too is quoted at length to her discredit. When she writes to Harold, "Very, very intelligent people like us…are able to rise superior," Mr. Craft totally misses the note of irony. When she complains that army tanks have spoiled her wood in 1944, she is said to be selfishly unpatriotic when nobody loved her country more than Vita. When she refuses to be called Lady Nicolson after Harold was knighted, Mr. Craft says that it was because the title was inferior to "the higher lineage" the Sackvilles had enjoyed, when Vita was only trying to cling to her own name, V. Sackville-West. It is difficult to see how Virginia Woolf would have chosen Mr. Craft's version of Vita as her most intimate friend.

Then Harold. He too is a snob because on a lecture-tour of the United States in 1933 he found his ladies-club audiences uncongenial, just as any American intellectual would have found their British equivalents, but when Harold writes with sympathy and liking about the Lindberghs, the Morrows, Thomas Lamont, Minna Curtiss and Archibald MacLeish, these people are dismissed by Mr. Craft as "acceptable American yahoos," and Harold's attitude to the United States as "unambivalently negative." Then he is said to be even more snobbish than Vita about gardens. Rhododendrons are out because they smack of suburban gardens and are quite unsuited to Sissinghurst. So they are. He is also a snob because he prefers the company of people like Winston Churchill and King Paul of Greece ("an old pansy, really") to that of stout stockbrokers. And so on.

In fact, for their times, Vita and Harold were remarkably unsnobbish. Snobs are ultra-conventional. The Nicolsons, as their marriage and Harold's diplomatic, political and literary careers amply prove, were not. If Mr. Craft were to read Vita's novels The Edwardians and All Passion Spent, or her poem Sissinghurst, he would understand that while she valued the tradition of Britain's aristocracy, she deplored and ridiculed the triviality and self-indulgence of its modern representatives. If he read Harold's Some People or Public Faces, he would observe that quality mattered to him far more than class.

Perhaps "quality" is no longer an acceptable term. One must not make distinctions between people on the grounds of their taste, manners, culture, friendships or occupations if they convey any suggestion that one is more commendable than another instead of just different. To do so is snobbish. I would like to put to Mr. Craft another definition of the word. A snob is a person who attaches exaggerated importance to birth or wealth, and claims unfounded acquaintance with the eminent. In what conceivable sense could that definition be applied to Vita or Harold?

Nigel Nicolson
Kent, England

Robert Craft replies:

I purchased Vita and Harold with at first no thought of reviewing it and for no other reason than that I have always enjoyed Harold Nicolson's pothole-free prose. I have read all of his books—Public Faces was given me by the poet from whom Nicolson borrowed the title—as well as the Observer reviews which it is to be hoped Nigel Nicolson will collect and publish. I am thankful for these writings, for two hours in Harold Nicolson's company in a Hotel Connaught dining room in November 1958, and for the pleasures of the Sissinghurst gardens on a visit not long ago. But I cannot gainsay his own judgment in a 1936 letter to Vita: "You have a Sackville snobbishness."

Nigel Nicolson has looked at my review rather carelessly. Nowhere does it say, or imply, that Vita was Virginia Woolf's "most intimate friend." Nor, when Vita complains about "army tanks"—her letter does not mention tanks—having "spoiled her wood in 1944," does it accuse her of being "unpatriotic." I did say that to deplore the soldiers in her wood "tarnishing" it "forever" seems somewhat ungrateful to these defenders of the realm she so "loved." Nor do I hold Vita's partygoing against her, or use evidence of her wealth to discredit her: my quotations simply seek to indicate something of the person she was from the life she led. Obviously the name V. Sackville-West, a long-established author, would survive her husband's knighthood.

The alleged tone of irony in Vita's remark about "very intelligent people like us" does not emerge with any force for the reason that the remark, in kind, recurs too frequently. But Mr. Nicolson himself misses the unintended irony in his defense of his father vis-à-vis Americans by saying that Harold approved of such front-page types as the Lindberghs, the Lamonts, the Morrows, and the Roosevelts. Did he never meet an "ordinary" person in whom he could find any interest?

Mr. Nicolson's "other" definition of the word snob is in the dictionaries. I continue to think that, at least as concerns the attaching of importance to birth, it exactly applies to Vita and Harold.



July 02, 2003

A place of greater safety for Vita’s work
The time has come for Vita Sackville-West’s manuscripts to leave home, writes her son Nigel Nicolson

IF ONE is the son of two prolific authors, and inherits the manuscripts of their books, journalism, diaries and lectures, what should one do with them? File them, and never look at them again? Give them away to friends as keepsakes and to charities for sale? Or sell them?

This was my problem. My father, Harold Nicolson, did not keep many manuscripts, as he usually typed his books and articles and regarded the typescripts as waste paper, apart from his diaries which he bequeathed to Balliol College, Oxford. But my mother, Vita Sackville-West, never learnt to type and wrote everything in longhand. She could not bear to destroy something which had given her so much trouble, even scraps of poetry which she scribbled aged nine. Her literary archive which survives at Sissinghurst is therefore voluminous. It includes the manuscripts of many of her books, published and unpublished, the notebook in which she recorded her dreams, her gardening articles, her juvenilia, poems, stories, plays, and reviews in quantity. The total amounts to some 9,000 pages, all in her idiosyncratic handwriting.

It is this archive which Sotheby’s will be offering for sale on my behalf on July 10.

Why am I doing this? I could be called unfilial, indifferent and mean — meaner than the grandson who sells the family silver, because manuscripts are more personal. Should I feel guilty? Well, no, I don’t, and for these reasons. These precious manuscripts have lain for 40 years in my house, neatly filed and catalogued, but exposed to fire, damp, beetle, theft and loss, and they are uninsured. The time has come to give them more security in the care of a great library at home or abroad, where scholars can have access to them in conditions which no private house, except a Chatsworth or a Hatfield, can match. Sotheby’s are offering the collection in a single lot, so that it will never be dispersed. We will keep at Sissinghurst Vita’s more intimate papers, like her letters, diaries and garden-notes.

This is not the first time that items in her literary property have been offered for sale. She felt no uneasiness in doing so herself. She would sell one of her own manuscripts when she was short of funds to pay for a holiday or our school fees, or because she wanted a dozen new magnolias. Thus the manuscripts of The Edwardians and All Passion Spent found their way into the Berg Collection of New York Public Library and of The Land into the Huntingdon Library in California. She sold (for £1 a letter!) her 500 letters from Virginia Woolf, now also in the Berg.

I, too, have sold some of her manuscripts, mainly for charity. It was a convenient way of raising quite large sums which I could otherwise not have afforded. Her weekly garden-articles for The Observer, written in big foolscap note-books which held half a year at a time, have proved a fertile source. One went for £3,000 for the Royal Societry of Literature, another to St Anne’s College, Oxford, for £3,600, and a third, astonishingly, for £10,000 to the National Trust. Five more of these notebooks are in the Sotheby’s sale. Then I gave the manuscript of The Garden to the Huntingdon Library, and the manuscript of her book on Andrew Marvell for sale on behalf of The London Library. The most successful sale was for Vita’s only adult play, Marriage, which she left unfinished becasue she didn’t know how to manage Act III, since at that time (1920) her own marriage was going through a difficult phase. It was sold by the agent Paul Evans for £12,000 for the benefit of Cranbrook School. He also sold a single letter from Virginia Woolf for £3,000, to help the V. W. Society fund a memorial to her in Tavistock Square. So it went on. But now no longer. The remaining archive is in Sotheby’s hands.

It is the diversity of the collection that is so rewarding, and its extension over her whole life. Vita started writing seriously at the age of 12, shutting herself up in the attics or in a summerhouse at Knole, oblivious to the reproaches of her father that she was not more “normal”, and of her mother that she was “wrapped up in her writings” to the neglect of her social duties. One senses her frustration in her verse-play Chatterton written when she was 16: “In my own room, when my poor mother came/ And fetched me suddenly away, to talk/ Inanities all through a dragging meal.”

Chatterton was followed by long romantic novels (five of them are in the Sotheby’s sale), like Behind the Mask, 120,000 words long, written almost without correction in her schoolgirl hand, and Richelieu, in French, for she was bilingual, and masses of juvenile poems, short stories and plays. She wrote her diary in Italian, because her mother could not understand it. Then she met my father (“Io l’amo, tanto, tanto”), and her life changed for ever. She retained throughout a handwriting as legible as print and a remarkable fluency in prose. Her manuscripts are almost as free from correction as Trollope’s, too free, said Virginia Woolf, but her poetry was crafted with immense care and alteration. In the manuscripts one sees her mind at work. Take this, the last line of her well-known poem, Rabbits, addressed to my father in 1944:

“How full the harvest of our garnered sheaves” which she altered to, “How full the barn that holds our garnered sheaves”, with its hint of Long Barn and Sissinghurst, and that was the version read by Cecil Day-Lewis at their joint memorial service in 1968. The pleasure of possessing the original lies in the discovery of such movements in an author’s mind.

She rarely spoke of her writing, unlike my father, who would discuss his current work over lunch. I often did not know the subject, let alone the title, of her latest book until I saw it advertised. In conversation she was not as articulate as she was with her pen, nor so free with her opinions. Consequently, I never knew her as well as I know her now.

She kept secret many sides of her life, particularly her love-affairs with other women, of which I was totally unaware as a child. They were intense. During a single night, December 1, 1927, she wrote 12 Sapphic sonnets to Mary Campbell, and two more next morning before catching the train to London. At least three of them are in the Sotheby collection. But the most startling of her erotic writings is the full-length novel Challenge, of which the manuscript is probably the most important single item in the sale. She wrote it at the height of her affair with Violet Trefusis, in Monte Carlo, where they played truant for three months in 1918-19. It mirrors their love for each other, though in the novel Vita becomes Julian, for propriety’s sake. This small disguise was not enough. The families feared scandal, and suppressed the English edition, which was not published until 1974, when both were dead.

The sale of July 10 will be an emotional occasion for me, but I will not attend it. Some instinct restrains me from witnessing my mother’s manuscripts being put under the hammer. But I rejoice that they will soon find a new and safer home, perhaps in the British Library, perhaps in New York, or in the private collection of someone who has loved her writing and has the same respect for her memory as I have myself.


Harold Nicolson

Norman Rose
Jonathan Cape, £20, 383 pp


More than a marriage
(Filed: 06/02/2005)

John Gross reviews Harold Nicolson by Norman Rose

Harold Nicolson is best remembered today for his unconventional marriage. Even here, he is generally assigned a secondary role in the story. The starring parts are reserved for his wife Vita and her lover Virginia Woolf. And meanwhile his books are in danger of being forgotten, and the world in which he cut a notable figure has begun to seem very remote.

A lively new biography by Norman Rose should help to revive interest in him. Certainly it was overdue. It is less detailed than the two-volume life of Nicolson by James Lees-Milne, of which the first volume appeared in 1980, and it can't match it for style. But Lees-Milne was a close friend of Nicolson, writing only 10 years or so after his death. Rose supplies some badly needed perspective, while as a historian specialising in international relations he is much more at home than Lees-Milne was with the topics which dominated the first half of Nicolson's professional career.

Nicolson became a diplomat virtually by right of succession. His father, who was secretary to the British legation at Tehran at the time he was born, later became permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office. He himself entered the diplomatic service in 1909, and over the next 20 years he acquired an enormous amount of experience, both at home and abroad.

In 1914 he was sent to retrieve an erroneously delivered declaration of war from the German embassy in London. In 1918 he was attached to the British delegation at the Paris peace conference. His overseas postings included Madrid, Constantinople, Tehran and Berlin. He helped to draft the Balfour Declaration, and assisted Lord Curzon in the negotiations which led to the Treaty of Lausanne.

Distant though many of the issues that were at stake now seem, Rose's account of these bygone diplomatic labours is thoroughly absorbing. This is in part because he is able to draw on Nicolson's own words. The first-hand histories which Nicolson published after he had left the diplomatic service, Peacemaking, 1919 and Curzon: The Last Phase, are among his best-written books, to be cherished for their small observations as well as their large ones – for the description of the coffee served at the British delegation's headquarters in Paris, for instance, as "British to the core".

Nicolson had already established himself as a gifted writer in the early 1920s, with a series of short literary biographies: his subjects included Tennyson, Swinburne and Verlaine. These books owe an obvious debt to Lytton Strachey (which didn't prevent Strachey from saying nasty things about them in private), and the amused Stracheyan irony is sometimes laid on too thick. But they remain highly readable.

It was in the late Twenties, however, that Nicolson really came into his own as an author, with his collection of semi-fictional character sketches, Some People. The book is as witty, and as imaginatively satisfying, as a set of Beerbohm caricatures. But not everyone was amused. For some of his Foreign Office colleagues it seemed confirmation that he was a potential mischief-maker.

His immediate superior – he was stationed in Tehran at the time – recognised that he had been lampooned in it (even if only mildly), and described it as "a cad's book". The damage to his prospects was one of the factors that prompted Nicolson to resign from the diplomatic service in 1929.

Forced to make good his loss of income, his thoughts turned to journalism, and he took a job on the Evening Standard, writing for the paper's "London Diary". Rather a comedown, one would have said, for a man in his mid-forties who had walked with princes and prime ministers. In the event, he hated the work; he hung on for a year and a half and then resigned, describing the Diary as "that urinal of futility".

Other journalistic ventures proved more congenial. He signed up as a regular book- reviewer for The Daily Telegraph and later the Observer. For 14 years he wrote a weekly column for the Spectator. In spite of collisions with John Reith's ironclad regime at the BBC, he became a well-known broadcaster.

He also pursued a political career. From 1935 to 1945 he served as an MP under the National Labour banner (he could never think of himself as a Tory) but with links to Churchill (he was staunchly anti-appeasement). He failed to shine, however – he lacked the true politician's single-mindedness – and a wartime stint as junior minister at the Ministry of Information led nowhere. After the war he joined the Labour party, though without much conviction. He was defeated in a by-election in 1948, and that was that.

There were always his books to fall back on. A steady stream of them flowed from his pen, on literary and historical topics – always urbane, but never recapturing the creative spark of Some People. His greatest popular success was his official life of George V.

As for his private life, you can get much fuller accounts of his marriage elsewhere, but Rose sketches in the basic facts quite effectively. He also provides glimpses of his homosexual liaisons with a whole string of characters, from Edward Molyneux, the fashion designer, to his fellow-critic Raymond Mortimer. His friendship with Guy Burgess may have ended up in the bedroom, but Rose is inclined to think not.

There remains one ugly aspect of the story. Benign and liberal though he generally was, Nicolson was capable of shameful prejudices. His sense of caste often made him speak of ordinary people with contempt. Some of the remarks he is reported to have made about blacks were disgusting (though he hated Apartheid). His attitude to Jews was complicated – he greatly admired the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, he helped a number of refugees from Nazism – but he also gave vent to some appalling anti-Semitism. Having listened to a speech by the then Lord Mayor of London, Sir Bernard Waley-Cohen, in 1961, he commented in his diary, "Such a Jew you never saw; he arouses my sympathy for Eichmann."

Norman Rose faces up squarely – more than any previous writer, as far as I know – to this side of Nicolson, but he doesn't allow it to serve as the only measure of the man's character. In this respect, as in others, his portrait is admirably balanced and well-rounded.

John Gross's books include 'A Double Thread' (Vintage).


'My God! It is dispiriting to canvass these dumb idiots'
(Filed: 13/02/2005)

Hilary Spurling reviews Harold Nicolson by Norman Rose

Harold Nicolson once compared himself to a hen run over by his wife, a joke that seems to have misfired so far as his latest biographer is concerned. Best known until now as an able diplomat, virtuoso man of letters, trenchant diarist and pioneering gender bender, Nicolson somehow emerges from this book looking more like a crushed hen.

His school career was blighted by fear of failure ("Was parental indifference the cause of this sorry state of affairs?" asks Norman Rose, whose favourite technique, when baffled, is to interrogate the reader). Things got no better at Balliol College, Oxford ("did Harold really fit in?"), except for a lasting friendship with its history tutor, F F Urquhart, nicknamed "Sligger" and celebrated for cultivating bright young men ("What was the secret of this relationship?" Rose asks plaintively, having tried but failed to find evidence of a sexual connection).

The third son of a moderately successful diplomat with minor aristocratic connections, young Harold was destined for the Foreign Office, which he liked, and where he reckoned he would have risen smoothly to ambassador if it hadn't been for his marriage to the writer Vita Sackville-West. Vita's prime attraction was her superiority. Condescending, disapproving and impenetrably self-absorbed, she easily outclassed Harold in point of birth, wealth and strength of character. She refused to accompany him on postings abroad, or even to take his name ("Vita hated being Lady Nicolson even more than she hated being Mrs Nicolson," wrote their son Nigel, after Harold foolishly accepted a knighthood). She was adept at puncturing his enthusiasm for his job and she dressed, in Harold's memorable phrase, in the kind of clothes Beatrice would have worn if she had married Dante.

The Nicolsons never tired of pointing out to each other and everyone else that theirs was a perfect marriage. Both were serially unfaithful. Harold slept with men, Vita conducted long, smouldering romances with women. Her masterful approach suited her husband, who summed himself up for his lover Raymond Mortimer as "a petty chatty chatterboxy thing". His clinging, girlish side appealed to Vita, who compensated for her grief at being female - and so unable to inherit the ancestral Sackville estate or title - by trying her best to be a man. "These are indeed deep waters," writes Rose, "never to be fathomed."

One unbreakable bond between the Nicolsons was that each reinforced the other's infinite fastidiousness. "By God, we are not vulgar!" cried Harold, who fancied Ivor Novello and was said to have had partners procured for him by Guy Burgess. It was pressure from his wife and her ex-lover Virginia Woolf that made him finally give up diplomacy to edit the Londoner's Diary on the Evening Standard. "What a stallion, what a young blood mare you are!" wrote Woolf, perhaps understandably confused in sexual terms by this stage. The new job was not a success. "I simply loathe working for a newspaper," wrote Harold. "It covers all my days with a dark cloud of shame."

In 1931 he stood for Parliament but lost his deposit ("was Harold temperamentally suited to a parliamentary career?"), coming fifth out of five candidates. Next he joined Oswald Mosley's New Party, shortly afterwards renamed the British Union of Fascists, and became the editor of Mosley's newspaper, where he virtually wiped out circulation in 10 weeks. He promptly switched allegiance to the National Labour party in return for a safe seat. "I loathe and hate every minute of this Election," wrote Harold, whose reluctance to woo the voters in the first place was matched by his resentment at having to spend time in his Leicestershire constituency.

What he liked was networking in the House of Commons and hobnobbing with the great, but his desire to be an MP never overcame his feelings for the electorate. "I don't like the masses in the flesh. My God! It is dispiriting to canvass these dumb idiots." His basically Left-wing sympathies were perpetually betrayed by illiberal gut instincts. He never modified his contempt for foreigners, or the visceral anti-Semitism that dictated his view of his son's publishing partner, the "filthy oily Jew" George Weidenfeld. He had trouble, even in his seventies, eating off plates handled by black waiters.

All this is no doubt true but it leaves out almost everything that made Nicolson so attractive in his day. Rose's emphasis on foreign affairs is disproportionate - given that his subject was rarely, if ever, able to influence the events he watched so closely - and his attitude to Nicolson's literary output unfairly dismissive. Anyone familiar with Nicolson's letters and diaries, the picture of his marriage painted by his son, or his curious oblique autobiography in Some People, will hardly recognise this coarse and clumsy portrait, wholly lacking in the affection, irony and humour that give light and shadow to Nicolson's own writing.



January 30, 2005

Biography: Harold Nicolson by Norman Rose

by Norman Rose

Cape £20 pp400

Harold Nicolson often wondered why he had not been more successful. He had shown promise as a diplomat until his wife, Vita Sackville-West, insisted he gave it up. But after that he drifted, making little impact as an author and none as a politician. Was it, he pondered, because he lacked some vital spark? To readers of Norman Rose’s biography, the question of what was wrong with Harold will seem less of a mystery. He was a rabid snob and a squirming snake-pit of prejudice, without even the intelligence to realise that other people were as human as himself.

Rose blames his upbringing. A Victorian diplomat’s son, Harold grew up in palatial embassies abroad where liveried servants bowed as one passed. At Oxford he developed a “marked distaste” for students who had not been to public school. Their “strange accents” distressed him, as did the presence of female undergraduates. His attitude to the lower classes, which crystallised at this time, was straightforward: “I hate them. I do not want them to become like me.” From university he proceeded to the Foreign Office, a bastion of aristocratic privilege, where his allocated sphere of interest was the Balkans. Foreigners, he soon found, were far from satisfactory. The Turks were “servile and inglorious”, the Bulgarians contemptible, the Italians cheats and liars. As a classical scholar (he had secured a third in Greats at Oxford) he had a soft spot for the Greeks, and encouraged their ambitions in Asia Minor, a policy that led to the slaughter of 30,000 Greek and Armenian Christians by Ataturk in Smyrna (“Poor darlings,” sighed Harold). Travelling in later life allowed him to extend the range of his xenophobia. The Japanese, he found, were “ugly and loathsome”; the Americans “a most unfortunate mistake”.

As for non-whites, they were completely beyond the pale. An early Foreign Office job was to meet two delegates from the Haitian Republic, whom he characterised as “beastly niggers”. The “dark races”, he explained, were “born to occupy an inferior station in life”. They were inartistic, dirty and too numerous. These convictions never waned, and they went with an equally poisonous and permanent anti-semitism. He habitually described Jews as “oily”, and favoured the creation of a national homeland in Palestine only because it would collect all the world’s Jews together “as Butlin’s collects all the noisy holiday-makers”. Even the Holocaust did not shame him into repentance. Discussing a mutual Jewish acquaintance with his son after the war, he declared “he arouses my sympathy for Eichmann” (the Nazi responsible for administering the extermination of European Jewry, who was hanged by the Israelis in 1962).

In Vita, Harold found one of the few women in England who could outdo him in snobbery. Glorying in her lineage, and in the ancestral pile at Knole, she despised everyone who was not a Sackville-West, and openly classified her husband’s parents and family as “bedint” — Sackville-West slang for “common”. Harold, masochistic by temperament, rather agreed. He had always hated his “plebeian” surname, he confessed. Their semi-detached marriage, and the gardens they created at Long Barn and Sissinghurst, have been written about quite enough already, and Rose wisely fast-forwards through these areas, as he does through their large and shifting seraglios of same-sex partners. Vita’s famously included Virginia Woolf, who scorned her lover’s writing skills (“a pen of brass”) and appearance (“florid, moustached, parakeet-coloured”), but was lured to her bed by her sheer aristocratic glamour, like any fluff-brained deb.

Both Harold and Vita viewed the rise of socialism with horror and dismay. Harold feared that a tide of “venom” would engulf civilisation, which he equated with the class advantages he and Vita enjoyed. He often complained that, what with punitive taxation, they subsisted just above the breadline, but this merely illustrated his failure to notice how other people lived. Besides Sissinghurst, with its 400 acres and its staff of six plus three gardeners, he and Vita had a London house and a yacht. All of this was acquired and maintained with Sackville-West money, since their joint earnings were quite inadequate for such a lifestyle. That did not prevent Vita from protesting, when the welfare state was first mooted in the early 1940s, that it was wrong to give people “everything for nothing” because it discouraged “thrift and effort”. It had been a mistake, in her view, to educate the lower orders, since it encouraged them to rise above their “rightful place”. The populace should be well fed and well housed, like dairy cows, but nothing more. Despite her misgivings, Harold, to his credit, expressed sympathy with the 1942 Beveridge Report, the welfare-state blueprint, and even, according to Rose, put the idea of a national health service into Beveridge’s head.

Making excuses for Harold is not Rose’s remit, but anyone inclined to do so might well point first to his homosexuality. Throughout his life, homosexual acts were illegal in Britain. Simply by being true to his sexual nature, he risked public shame and possible imprisonment. Blackmail was also a persistent threat. He must have lived, as Rose observes, on a knife edge. It does not take much imagination to see that finding himself sexually separate and different could have both reinforced and been alleviated by a sense of social and racial superiority. Even if this explanation is misguided, it has to be granted that when his son Ben confided his own homosexuality to his father, Harold managed the situation well. It was, he advised, not a thing to be ashamed of or proud about — just a natural preference, “as if you liked oysters done in sherry”. Ben later married and had a daughter.

Harold’s homosexuality, and the dangers it incurred, clearly instilled in him a habit of watchfulness. His writing hits off mannerisms, clothes and gestures unerringly. It was this that made Some People, his first and most enjoyable book, so annoying to colleagues at the Foreign Office who appeared in it. It was also what made him an outstanding diarist. Describing Marcel Proust, whom he met in Paris (“white, unshaven, grubby, slip-faced”), or James Joyce (“a very nervous and refined animal, a gazelle in a drawing room”), or the future Edward VIII’s “sandy eyelashes” and “furtive giggling”, he continually feeds the eye and ear. His account of the German delegates signing the 1919 peace treaty in the Galerie des Glaces at Versailles — one of the best pieces of reportage in the language — mobilises the same skills.

Rose is a professor of international relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, so he is able to put Harold’s foreign policy skills into context more thoroughly than has been done before. There were some misjudgments. In 1930, Harold, on a posting in Berlin, announced that Hitler’s political career was finished. In 1945, he assured the House of Commons that Stalin was “the most reliable man in Europe”. But by and large, Rose judges, his reading of the international scene was creditable. Just as well, given the other characteristics that emerge from this frank and alert book.


Short, well-linked biography







In the shadows
Book Reviews
Peregrine Worsthorne
Monday 14th February 2005

Harold Nicolson
Norman Rose Jonathan Cape
, 383pp, £20
ISBN 0224062182

If a job - in this case, to write another biography of Harold Nicolson - is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well. Being a professor of international relations, Norman Rose has the most necessary qualification of all for the task: a professional understanding of foreign affairs - something that Nicolson's previous biographer, the diarist and aesthete James Lees-Milne, lacked. For the first time, the emphasis is placed not on Nicolson the writer, politician and cuckolded husband of Vita Sackville-West, but on Nicolson the brilliant young diplomat who, by the early 1920s, was already on the way to succeeding his father as permanent head of the Foreign Office. Nicolson never shone as a politician - he once threw in his lot with Oswald Mosley - and never excelled as a writer. However, he had the ear of two prime ministers, Arthur Balfour and David Lloyd George, and two foreign ministers, Curzon and Austen Chamberlain, and for a brief period, around the time of the First World War, he played a distinguished role in world affairs.

When the old Austro-Hungarian em-peror Franz Josef died in November 1916, his successor, Karl, put out feelers for a separate peace between the crumbling empire and the Allies. Nicolson, Rose tells us, was apparently a lone voice at the Foreign Office in favour. Against everybody's views, he suggested peace with Austria. He was also an early backer of the Zionist cause - in fact Balfour's "staunchest adviser". It would, he argued, restore to the Jews their dignity, that "corporate national confidence" they so clearly lacked. Palestine would be "a nice place in which to collect all the Jews of the world as Butlins collects the noisy holiday-makers". No wonder Balfour considered Nicolson "irreplaceable".

Rose is an accomplished guide to this serious part of his subject's life. He makes excellent use of Nicolson's own account, which never failed to squeeze every drop of hilarity out of matters of peace and war, life and death. Rose tells the story of how in 1914, on the eve of the First World War, it fell to Nicolson to deliver a revised version of Britain's ultimatum to Prince Lichnowsky, the German ambassador in London. When he arrived at the embassy, at around 11pm, Nicolson was told that the ambassador was asleep and could not be disturbed. Having stressed the gravity of the situation, Nicolson was finally escorted to Lichnowsky's bedroom, where he found him reclining on his bed in his pyjamas.

[Lichnowsky] . . . waved Harold over to the writing table by the window where the papers lay, apparently unexamined. Harold made the exchange . . . Lichnowsky turned away from Harold, signalling that the interview had come to an end. But he was a diplomatist schooled in the old ways: "Give my best regards to your father," he entreated Harold. "I shall not in all probability see him before my departure."

Never again was Nicolson so much at the centre of affairs; these early years were the most fulfilled of his life. By making this clear, Rose helps the reader to appreciate how cruel it was of Vita (aided by her lover Virginia Woolf) to persuade Nicolson to resign from the Foreign Office in favour of what amounted to little more than a humiliating job as gossip writer for Lord Beaverbrook's London Evening Standard. From then on, his life was spent in the shadows - albeit among aristocrats and glamorous bohemians. It was weak of Nicolson to allow these Sapphic conspirators to ruin his life, but Rose demonstrates in excruciating detail how Vita left him no alternative. She refused to fulfil all her spouse-like public duties and made her wildly scandalous homosexual affairs all too public - thereby drawing attention to Nicolson's own, more discreet ones.

Rose does not judge or criticise. Given Nicolson's homosexual proclivities, in which he promiscuously and happily indulged, perhaps Vita was doing him a favour. His diplomatic career had already been put on hold after he contracted gonorrhoea in Madrid. And after spending a weekend in 1917 at Knebworth, where the guests included the painter John Lavery, the senior civil servant Edward Marsh, the diplomatists Horace Rumbold and Louis Mallet and the writer Osbert Sitwell, Nicolson suspected that he had caught another venereal infection from "one of the male guests (or servants)". Even without Vita's selfishness, his career might have come to a sticky end.

Yet this is by no means certain. As this book shows, the fate of Oscar Wilde was in those days the exception rather than the rule. Newspapers were more tolerant and discreet than they are today. Just as juries were far more unwilling to convict suspected murderers when the death penalty was still a punishment, so were newspapers less willing to expose homosexuals when they might be sent to prison for two years' hard labour. Certainly, Nicolson was upbeat on his favourite subject, agreeing with his friend Raymond Mortimer that being a homosexual was at least "better than having a bad squint or an incurable stammer". In a letter to one of his sons many years later, he wrote that homosexuality was "as if you liked oysters done in sherry: not a thing to be particularly ashamed of or particularly proud of".

Nicolson's life supplies all the ingredients for an entertaining and enlightening biography. Most of the literary, social and political giants of the 20th century, from Churchill to Proust, play brilliant cameo roles, as do the stars of the demi-monde, not to mention the gutter. Equally rich in biographical material is the strange and even slightly sinister family life - passed in the idyllic surroundings of Sissinghurst Castle, surrounded by Vita's superb garden - from which the elder son, Ben, could not wait to escape. Readers, however, have less reason to be censorious. Hitler took Nicolson seriously - his name figures prominently on the Fuhrer's list of dangerous Englishmen. Not a bad testimonial.

Peregrine Worsthorne's most recent book is In Defence of Aristocracy (HarperCollins)




 SUNDAY 6 February 2005

Unconventional king of his own castle



Harold Nicolson
Norman Rose
Jonathan Cape, £20

HAROLD Nicolson has always been difficult to categorise. A writer, politician, reviewer, biographer and journalist in his own right, he is still best known today for his life at Sissinghurst Castle and his remarkable, unconventional marriage to the author Vita Sackville-West.

Nicolson is often portrayed as the charming, slightly weak-natured shadow behind the glamorous personality of his dramatic, aristocratic wife.

Rose’s biography does little to redress the balance; Nicolson himself, says Rose, was unsure exactly where his true talents lay, right up until his death in 1968, although his long marriage to Vita was without doubt one of his most extraordinary achievements.

A passionate politician who was acquainted with Oswald Mosley and George Curzon, he was always to regret his career change from the Foreign Office to the deskbound job of a journalist for the Evening Standard, but the constant need to travel abroad for long periods caused problems in his marriage.

Even so, Nicolson made the best of his new career. He possessed "an amazing facility for writing", at one point penning 40,000 words in one week on a biography of Byron.

His attempt at autobiography, Some People (1927), was self-effacing, witty, well received and is still in print today. He became governor of the BBC in 1942. And yet, despite his many career successes, Nicolson’s liking for a hedonistic lifestyle, studded with brief, intense love affairs with other men, ensured a perpetual restlessness and ate away at his money, prompting him to have to borrow from his wealthy wife.

The imbalance between the financial standing of husband and wife is well documented in this biography. Vita, prevented from inheriting her family’s ancestral home, Knole, still received a massive legacy when her querulous, eccentric mother, Lady Sackville (who in turn had inherited a vast fortune from Sir John Murray Scott, beneficiary of the Wallace Collection) died alone in Brighton.

It was no struggle for Vita to buy Sissinghurst Castle, in Kent, where she grew increasingly fond of solitude - penning novels, poetry and her Observer gardening column in the red-bricked writing-tower. Neither did it seem too much of a struggle for the marriage to Nicolson to survive right until her death in 1962. Each found some unique quality in the other which they did not find in their many lovers.

Rose’s biography of Nicolson is well written, on the whole, although peppered with repetition of facts (for instance, we learn twice about Nicolson’s "imaginary" nanny, Miss Plimsoll). There is the occasional baffling misquotation: the Bloomsbury Group were not said to have "loved in threes and lived in Squares", as Rose puts it (giving no reference to his source) but to have "lived in squares and loved in triangles".

Nicolson himself despised the affectedness of the Bloomsbury Group, although he came to like and admire Virginia Woolf, despite the latter’s infamous affair with his wife.

This book comes no closer to revealing the ‘real’ Nicolson, but then again, Nicolson himself never quite discovered his true identity. Rose does achieve a warm, sympathetic portrait of a complex individual whose fictional counterpart in Woolf’s Orlando was described as being a "romantic and chivalrous, passionate, melancholy, yet determined" man.



Wednesday 23 February 2005    

An endearing underachiever

Harold Nicolson
by Norman Rose
Cape, 383pp, £20, ISBN 0224062182

Reviewed by Philip Ziegler

Read this article, here                     


The TLS n.º 5321   March 25, 2005

Safe Liaisons

John Campbell

Nigel Nicolson, editor


460 PP. Weidenfeld and Nicolson,  £ 25

     0 297 84764 3


Norman Rose


383 PP. Cape. £ 20

     0 224 06218 2



Jonathan Cape, £20/£18 and Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25/£22.50

Harold Nicolson, by Norman Rose and The Harold Nicolson Diaries 1907-1963, Edited by Nigel Nicolson

Naive, snobbish and utterly compelling

By Richard Canning

Published : 31 March 2005 

October 20, 2010

The Violet Trefusis affair

Appearing as a "wicked fat red-head" and "a poodle" in the writings of others, "Madame Très Physique" also wrote some original and dissenting novels


Michael Holroyd


Read these articles, here