The Worcestershire Grumbler: The Writings of James Lees-Milne, Diarist and Man of Letters

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When I first began working on this article in early December 2011, I took out from the library the few volumes of James Lees-Milne's work I did not own personally. My next appointment was with a group largely comprised of Episcopal priests--an educated, Anglophile group that would seem the natural audience with whom I could share my enthusiasm. Yet, carrying my books into the luncheon, some atavistic instinct prompted me to put another book I had borrowed, a Selected Poems of a respected living American poet, on top: as if I wanted to protect my 'secret' of Lees-Milne from prying ecclesiastical eyes. Nevertheless, my 'secret' was found out, and indeed several of the distinguished clerics in the group were Lees-Milne fans. But it is interesting how I wanted to keep my love of his books private, something 'all for myself' or to be shared with only a few close friends. Lees-Milne's work does that to one: he speaks so candidly about himself, his life, and his love of art and architecture that his authorial relationship with the reader becomes a privileged one, not to be readily or casually communicated, not to be flaunted or brandished.

James Lees-Milne was above all a historic preservationist and architectural historian. Born in 1908, he was of a family of the landed gentry--in other words, landowners who had money and were recognizably part of the upper class but were not titled. This was the same stratum that produced Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Thomas Gray, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and has always outnumbered the few actually titled aristocrats who became prominent writers: George Gordon, Lord Byron; John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester; Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey; Mary, Lady Chudleigh and so on. The indeterminate qualities of the landed gentry, the way they had access to social hierarchies, and a place within them, but also had many possibilities of being displaced, 'distressed', or marginalized, has made them, historically, acute observers: both critics and custodians.

Lees-Milne's childhood at Wickhamford, a manor house in Worcestershire which was not a long-established family possession, being bought by his parents just around the time of his birth, and his schooling at a prep school and Eton did not show him destined for greatness. In an episode memorably detailed in his quasi-autobiography Another Self, his father made him take a secretarial course immediately after leaving Eton--as if, having left his prestigious public school not seen as one of the gilded youth, he was to be propelled immediately into the workforce as, at eighteen, a benighted ordinary Joe. Fortunately his mother intervened and arranged for him to go to Oxford. There, he was one of the less brilliant in a historically brilliant generation, the cohort of 'Bright Young Things' who included Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, and many others who became figures of world prominence. This generation had a distinct spirit defined by then being too young to fight in the First World War but old enough to be aware of its devastation. They were disillusioned, but unlike their High Modernist forebears (born in the 1880s), did not cast their disillusionment as a melodramatic break from the past. Lees-Milne had a considerable respect for Virginia Woolf, and was close to several members of the Bloomsbury Group, including Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. But his generation, born in the twentieth century, both assumed a sense of loss, and also encountered tremendous opportunity, simply because so many of the generation immediately above them had been killed or traumatized in the war.

Lees-Milne, though, seemed slow to take advantage of these opportunities. He was a late awakener, who through his twenties had found neither a permanent job nor a life partner when his peers had all found both. Though he served as secretary to the diplomatic eminence grise Lord Lloyd (not to be confused with Lloyd George, the former Prime Minister), he was not cut out for political work, and had not yet discovered his vocation as a writer. …