Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1032 words.)