Is it purely fortuitous that the decline of our civilization and the collapse of the country house way of life are coincidental?
— James Lees-Milne, ‘The Country House in Our Heritage”, in The Destruction of the Country House by Roy Strong et al, Thames & Hudson, 1974.
A professed enthusiasm for the published diaries of James Lees-Milne comes, we learn too late, at the cost of having to defend their late author against a catalogue of failings — only some of these entirely imagined or misguided.
A few accusations, at least, can be fended off easily enough. Wasn’t JLM a snob? Yes, of course he was — but then he was neither the uncritical confidante of duchesses, the worshipper at the gaudy shrines of wealth and success nor the self-congratulatory anosmiac in matters of public and private morality that some believe him to be, not least because to have been any of these things would have exemplified a predictability both boring and unattractive — and JLM was, of course, neither. Wasn’t he a reactionary, though? Not really, more’s the pity. Because for all the encouraging rants against trade union militancy, redistributive taxation and Irish republicanism notwithstanding, there’s also enough Harold Nicolsonian liberalism, Duke of Edinburgh-style ur-environmentalism and dandyish personal eccentricity here to ward off any accusations of ideological consistency. Politically, as in most other ways, JLM remains hard to pin down. In these paradoxes, maddening though they can be, lies more than a degree of his diaries’ enduring appeal.
Admittedly, there are problems. JLM was, on the basis of these same diaries, both anti-semitic and racist — but so very mildly so, by the standards of his age and class, that one often ends up wondering more at the mildness itself, than at the unremarkable nastiness and stupidity of yesterday’s rightly discredited prejudices. He was capable of remarkably homophobic pronouncements — somewhat oddly, given his promiscuously bisexual, mostly guilt-free history. His patchy wartime service — six months in the Irish Guards, followed by a year of convalescence and a welcome return to civilian life — looks unimpressive, especially when compared with the heroism of so many of his contemporaries, although the stress-induced onset of hereditary Jacksonian epilepsy would clearly be a kinder explanation than whatever combination of nervous collapse and cowardice unsympathetic critics might otherwise postulate in its place. JLM also went on a lot about liking houses more than people, which is rarely a good sign — although in practice, the individual qualities of house and person tended to soften the edges of any comparison — so perhaps he can be excused on that particular score.
In any event, however, we may perhaps agree that JLM was not an unambiguously admirable human being. As the diaries make plain — nor does Michael Bloch’s brilliant biography do anything much to dispel the impression — JLM could be petty, headstrong, arbitrary, vain, self-justifying and also extremely selfish. But JLM was, as the diaries also reveal, clear-eyed regarding his failings. And herein, I suppose, reposes his greatness as a diarist. For the perfect imaginary companion, while he surely ought to be more alert, more perceptive and more fluently confidential than even his brightest readers, at the same time cannot be seen to be superior to them. ‘You were silly like us …’ Even more than his wit and social reach, JLM’s contradictions, his failings and that unsparing yet somehow affectionate self-criticism are what render the diaries perfect company, as much so on tiresome days as on happy ones. A better man would, in short, have been a worse diarist. His enthusiasts end up loving him as much for his contradictions, contrariness and flaws, real though these may be, as despite them.
Yet for all that, there is one aspect of JLM’s story which continues to fill me with unease — his relationship with the National Trust.