Harold Nicolson

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Harold Nicolson told his sons that his Diaries were purely private records for his own reference, “not a work of literature or self-revelation.” The Diaries belie him in small ways. For instance, he carefully notes that he cannot write the truly interesting matters of discussion of Parliament during its secret sessions during World War II. He also comments on the ideal audience a diarist should have in mind (a great-grandson), and Nicolson shows some of the Diaries to James Pope-Hennessy for evaluation, after which he resolves to give them more depth of thought and emotion. Although Nicolson, himself, never rewrote or edited his Diaries, he consented to his son Nigel’s doing so; in addition, when the volumes started being published, he realized that they possibly could be a more lasting claim to fame than any of his other works. Without doubt, they are exactly that: Nicolson’s talent as a diarist places him in the ranks of Sir Fulke Greyville and Samuel Pepys.

The Diaries begin shortly after Nicolson resigned from a promising career in the British diplomatic corps to search for new challenges closer to home and family. His literary options are wide: his Tennyson and Some People were already well received; journalism, criticism, fiction, and biography were all within his ability, if not all to his taste. In politics, too, he had many friends and contacts. Fortunately for succeeding generations, these talents, combined with his social connections placed him in a unique position for a man of letters and a man of action. His Diaries excel in astute characterizations of many important personages, in authentic re-creations of mood and atmosphere of Parliament, of literary gatherings, and of the British public during these years.

In 1967-1969, the three volume edition of the Diaries and Letters, edited by Nigel Nicolson, was widely reviewed and unanimously acclaimed. Unfortunately, their content somehow became categorized as “only” political and social history. This present condensed version should help to rectify that mistake by bringing more of the presence of the literati into focus and making clearer, perhaps, how many of Nicolson’s sensitive comments are consciously self-exploratory, although it deletes much of the family side of the man. Moreover, the condensed form has strengths and a few weaknesses not present in the original editions. First, and most happily, the condensation should reach a wider and more diverse audience than did the three-volume edition. Stanley Olson’s editing brings at least the most significant events of Nicolson’s careers in politics and literature into closer proximity, allowing the reader to see new correlations and juxtapositions which were less obvious in the longer edition. Much of the new material adds detail which either seemed irrelevant when the first version was printed, or dealt with persons then still alive. The Channon material clearly belongs to the first category. The two references to Harold and his wife Vita’s sexual lives clearly belongs to the latter. So, obviously, does all the new material relating to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Unfortunately, when parallel passages appear in both works with different wording, the scholar is without aid in deciding which version is authoritative unless he has access to the original manuscript at Balliol College, Oxford. The scholar will find the condensed version an excellent tool, in spite of these minor problems, for it has an excellent index.

The multitude of literary figures known to Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, his wife, extend far beyond the boundaries of Bloomsbury. Only Harold Nicolson could have dined as an equal with Rudyard Kipling, Noel Coward, Bernard Berenson, G. B. Shaw, G. Murray, George Macauley Trevelyan, Elizabeth Bowen, Arthur Koestler, and Jean Cocteau. He joins Peter Quennell to check on the new edition of Lord Byron’s letters; he attends Free France festivities at which many poets, including T. S. Eliot, read from their works. Sentimentally, he declares Vita’s reading the best. The Diaries are scattered with sketches of authors done in succinct prose: T. S. Eliot is “a sacerdotal lawyer—dyspeptic, ascetic, eclectic. Inhibitions. Yet obviously a nice man and a great poet.” James Joyce, he describes as a “very nervous and refined animal” with a lovely voice. Still, after his admiration of Joyce’s technical ability, Nicolson is able to declare about Finnegans Wake, that “Joyce has this time, gone too far in breaking all communication between himself and his reader. It is a very selfish book.”

As an author himself, Nicolson is frequently overly dissatisfied with his own books, especially during the writing and prepublication stages. Yet, Vladimir Nabokov admires Some People; Igor Stravinsky compliments him on Journey to Java and Lord Carnock; Konrad Adenauer admires Public Faces; Queen Mary chooses Nicolson to write the biography of her dead husband, King George V; Elizabeth II awards him with a K.C.O.V., and Balliol College, Oxford, gives him an Honorary Fellowship for that critically acclaimed biography, George V (1952). Still, Nicolson’s tendency is to dismiss what he has written as “unsatisfactory and disappointing.”

For the majority of readers, the Diaries’ primary interest will be the records of political personages, issues, moods, and events of the times. The Diaries begin with Nicolson listening to Kipling’s stories about Theodore Roosevelt; by the end, he has commented on the rise and fall of Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The first entry on the royal family is an appearance of George V; by the end, he has seen the coronation and abdication of Edward VIII, the death of George VI, and the succession of Elizabeth II. James Ramsey MacDonald and Stanley Baldwin are the Parliamentary leaders when Nicolson first joins that body; by the end, Neville Chamberlain has long since disappeared, Winston...

(The entire section is 2499 words.)