This rather slender volume is a miniature portrait gallery of people—some real, some composite, some wholly fictional—whom Sir Harold either knew in the flesh or created out of types he encountered in his long experience in the British diplomatic service. He was born in Teheran and moved about in the Balkan and Mediterranean worlds as his father, Lord Carnock, was shifted from one diplomatic post to another. He himself entered the Foreign Office soon after his graduation from Oxford, and there he remained until 1929; hence, he had a wide acquaintance with people and places. From these experiences come the nine character sketches that make up the book.
The world in which these characters move is a rather specialized one: that of the Public School and the University; of European capitals before World War I or of the diplomatic chess game that immediately followed that war. Sir Harold knew many people in high places, and his duties often brought him close to the center of important events. But these events are employed only as a background against which the characters move and by means of which their idiosyncrasies are displayed. Sir Harold was more interested in people than in history; he enjoyed delving into the rich vein of eccentricity that is, or was, so much a part of the English national character, though he does not confine his portrait gallery to specimens of his fellow countrymen. There are two French exhibits—Jeanne de Henaut and the Marquis de Chaumont.
It would be satisfying to be able to discover the thread that binds all of these little sketches together so as to find a unifying element in Nicolson’s view of the human species. On a first reading, this task seems possible of fulfillment. One might say that here we have portraits of people who, somehow or other, fail in attaining their goals in life: Miss Plimsoll aspires to be the perfect governess; Marstock, the ultimate in the Public School tradition; Chaumont, a great poet; Arketall, the ideal valet. Each fails miserably. Miss Plimsoll is detested by her pupils; Marstock ends as a mediocrity; Chaumont is a failure in literature; Arketall is dismissed. Each is the victim of his attempt to live up to a preconceived notion of his role; he is an actor cast in the wrong part. Yet there are exceptions to this interpretation of the portraits. Lambert Orme, who begins his literary career as a preposterous imitator of the poets of the 1890’s, manages to shed his various outdated styles until, having been killed in the 1914 war, he is taken seriously as a poet by the “Bloomsbury Group.” Jeanne de Henaut is an absurd specimen of the Frenchwoman teaching her native language to Englishmen, yet she is a superb teacher who, although ignorant of French literature, has such an intuitive grasp of the niceties of the language that she has astonishing success in coaching candidates for the British Diplomatic Service. She actually is that which she thinks herself to be.
In reading these stories, one finds in two of them the effective use of the device of employing the ostensible main character as a glass through which we are given a view of a still more important person. This trick is best illustrated by the sketch called “Arketall.” The character who gives his name to the story is a drunken and ineffectual valet hired at the last moment by Lord Curzon, who was starting for Switzerland for a conference with Poincare and Mussolini. The misadventures of the alcoholic Arketall are highly amusing in themselves, but the real point of the story is the depicture of the amazing Curzon, a nobleman straight out of the eighteenth century, with his rich sense of humor, his great dignity, and his vast capacity for work. In “The Marquis de Chamont,” Nicolson uses the same technique. De Chaumont is a character from Proust, a man who carries snobbishness to the level of the fantastic and who tries to combine the life of...
(The entire section is 1,032 words.)