1936-1939: The early weeks of 1936 marked a low point of JLM's life. He was unemployed, penniless and socially in disgrace after jilting his fiancée. But that spring he landed the job of his dreams as secretary to the newly-formed Country Houses Committee of the National Trust - a job he owed to Harold Nicolson, whose wife Vita's former lover was the sister of the N.T's Secretary Matheson. Formerly devoted to preserving beauty spots, the N.T. had only recently adopted the conservation of country houses as one of its purposes. JLM's task was to help compile a list of the houses most worthy of preservation, approach the owners, and visit such of them as were potentially interested in arrangements with the N.T. He threw himself into these activities with almost religious fervour; and although few properties came to the N.T. at this period, he acquired knowledge and skills which would later prove invaluable. He was unconcerned about his minuscule salary, or the fact that his restricted budget sometimes obliged him to visit such great houses as Longleat by bicycle. His conservation work led to friendships with Robert Byron and Michael, Earl of Rosse (brother of JLM's school love Desmond Parsons who had recently died), with whom he was involved in founding the Georgian Group in 1937.
His work boosted his self-confidence and he began to lead the astonishingly varied social life later depicted in his diaries, which included Eton friends, the Harold Nicolson circle, aesthetes, bohemians, country house owners, the world of the great London hostesses, and old Catholic families such as the Herberts and FitzAlans. He continued writing and produced a novel, a book of short stories and much poetry, none of it considered publishable. There were at least two women to whom he considered proposing at this period (one the sister of Laura Herbert who married Evelyn Waugh); but his greatest romantic interest was Rick Stewart-Jones, a fellow conservationist working for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings with whom he fell in love at first sight on 1 March 1938. They embarked on a passionate affair - which was still going strong in the summer of 1939, when JLM began another, less intense affair with Stuart Preston, a young American protégé of Harold Nicolson.
1939-1945: The outbreak of war in 1939 led to a return of JLM's depression. His job at the N.T. ended, and he took a grim view of the future. During the Phoney War he trained as an ambulance driver, and organised an exhibition in support of the Finns. In the spring of 1940, when he was about to be called up, Michael Rosse arranged for him to be commissioned in the Irish Guards. An uproarious account of his six months as a reluctant warrior is given in Another Self. Soon after being caught in a bomb blast in London in October 1940, JLM fell ill. For almost a year he was confined to military hospitals, his condition eventually being diagnosed as Jacksonian epilepsy.
As JLM returned to health in the autumn of 1941, the N.T. was returning to life, as desperate country house owners began to look to it for the future salvation of their currently requisitioned properties. Through the influence of his old boss, the remarkable Oliver, Viscount Esher, JLM was discharged from the army and allowed to resume his old job, now based at West Wycombe Park where he went to live. There he endured the haughty behaviour of the châtelaine, Helen Dashwood, but was comforted by the presence of two old friends, the novelist Nancy Mitford and music critic Eddy Sackville-West. He also established a lifelong close friendship with the artist Eardley Knollys, a wartime recruit to the N.T. staff who would be his constant companion on N.T. expeditions for the next fifteen years.
From 1942 to 1945, JLM's life is documented in detail in his famous wartime diaries. These describe his visits round the country to beleaguered houseowners (many of them eccentric); his involvement in the wartime politics of the N.T.; the pursuit of intimate friendships with men such as James Pope-Hennessy and Stuart Preston, and women such as the mysterious 'Q'; the progress of the war, which closely touched him through the bombing of London and the deaths in action of such friends as Tom Mitford and Basil Ava; and the frantic social life of London during the Blitz - both at the tables of great hostesses and more intimate gatherings.
1945-51: His diaries again give a detailed picture of JLM's life from 1946 to 1949. These were grim years for the country but important ones in the history of the N.T., for which JLM now did his greatest work, organising the acquisition and opening of many famous houses. He also wrote the first of his architectural books - The Age of Adam (1947) and Tudor Renaissance (1951). These are now recognised as pioneering works, among the first to bring the subject to a wide audience; while not pretending to academic scholarship, he made it his policy to write about no building until he had seen it.
In 1949 he fell in love with the beautiful Alvilde Chaplin (née Bridges), whom he had met during the war with her patroness Princess 'Winnie' de Polignac. One year his junior, she was a gifted but astringent character, a lesbian whose friends included many homosexual men; her marriage (1933) to the handsome but philandering Anthony (later 3rd Viscount) Chaplin had only briefly been consummated, resulting in a daughter, Clarissa. The diaries describe the progress of the affair, at one moment of which JLM, Alvilde, Chaplin and Chaplin's young mistress (and future wife) Rosemary Lyttelton were all living together. Though infatuated with her, JLM had some doubts about marriage; but he proposed at the end of the year, Chaplin being happy to be divorced in order to wed Rosemary. Before committing himself, JLM had made enquiries in Catholic circles as to whether Alvilde was likely to receive a papal annulment of her marriage, so he could marry her in the eyes of the Church of which he remained a practising member; he received positive assurances, but in the end no annulment was granted. This was a blow to his faith; but they nevertheless married at a London registry office in November 1951, Harold and Vita acting as witnesses.
1951-58: JLM's marriage brought about a change in his pattern of life. He had never fully recovered from his wartime illness, and by the late 1940s was suffering from overwork and exhaustion. At the end of 1950 he relinquished his post as the N.T's Historic Buildings Secretary to take up a half-time position as its Architectural Adviser. Alvilde was living as a tax exile in France; in 1950 she bought a house at Roquebrune, in the mountains between Monaco and Menton. For the rest of the decade, they wintered together at Roquebrune; JLM spent six months of each year in England working for the N.T., for three of which she would join him; and they travelled on the continent, he doing research for his architectural books.
JLM took his marriage seriously, and derived many advantages from having a rich and accomplished wife who shared his cultural and social interests. She made the little house at Roquebrune delightful, cosetted him, entertained superbly and created an exquisite garden. His more leisured life enabled him to write two excellent books, The Age of Inigo Jones (1953) and Roman Mornings (1956), which won him critical acclaim.
Yet he was not happy. As he had feared, she could be moody and possessive. He got bored with life in the South of France and the society there. Although they had enjoyed a physical relationship before marriage, Alvilde was afterwards less willing to satisfy him in this regard; this caused frustration, as he struggled to put his homosexual life behind him. Then, in 1955, she embarked on a tempestuous lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West, with whom she shared a passion for gardening. This was conducted with discretion, and JLM affected not to notice it; but the situation was widely known among their circle and did not lessen his unhappiness.
1958-67: JLM turned fifty in August 1958. The next decade was to be the most troubled of his life. He became disillusioned with the two institutions he loved most, the Roman Catholic Church and the National Trust, eventually drifting away from the first and resigning from the staff of the second; and his passionate love affair with a younger man led to difficulties in his marriage and much trauma. In 1961, Alvilde gave up her French domicile and bought a house in the Cotswolds, Alderley Grange, where she created a famous garden. JLM loved this house - their 'Sissinghurst' - and it was undoubtedly a factor in keeping them together during several rocky years of marriage.
Despite the trauma, JLM wrote two of his best books during these years - Earls of Creation (1962) and St Peter's (1967). Although the latter, lavishly illustrated and written with papal approval, did not achieve the commercial success predicted for it, the deaths of his mother and his eccentric Aunt Dorothy (the pipe-smoking lesbian widow of his father's childless brother) brought him some capital for the first time, lessening his financial dependence on his wife.
1968-75: By the late 1960s, JLM and Alvilde had achieved a modus vivendi, living as a devoted couple at Alderley, yet leading separate lives. In his sixties, he finally began to achieve recognition as a man of letters outside the field of architecture. His autobiographical novel Another Self appeared in 1970, and was an instant success; two further novels followed, giving fascinating insights into his imagination. Ancestral Voices, the first volume of his wartime diaries, was published in 1975 and proved a succès de scandale. Meanwhile, in 1971, he had resumed a regular diary for the first time since the 1940s. This portrays him as the contented literary squire he essentially now was.
During the early 1970s, JLM and his wife began to take a gloomy view of the state of the country and their personal finances, and decided that the effort of running Alderley was too great for them. She sold the property at the end of 1974, and they moved to a maisonette in Lansdown Cresent, Bath. Its great feature was the library of William Beckford, which JLM lovingly restored. Soon after the move, he was invited to write a short book on Beckford - his first biography. Despite the boon of the library, the Bath property proved too cramped for them, and the garden too small for the exercise of her horticultural talents. When a late 17th century house on the Badminton estate, with an attached acre, became vacant, they were able to secure the tenancy thanks to their friendship with the Duke of Beaufort's heir David Somerset and his wife Caroline. They moved there at the end of 1975, Jim retaining the Bath library for his work.
1976-91: Despite the eccentric behaviour of their landlord, the hunting-obsessed 10th Duke of Beaufort ('Master'), which provided priceless material for JLM's journal, the Lees-Milnes led a contented life at their Badminton residence, Essex House (dubbed 'Bisex House' by a waspish observer). During this period, JLM wrote his three major biographies - of Harold Nicolson (1886-1968), Reginald, Viscount Esher (1852-1930), and the Bachelor Duke of Devonshire (1790-1858). The last of these was undertaken at the request of his lifelong friend 'Debo', Duchess of Devonshire, youngest of the Mitford sisters, whom he often visited at Chatsworth. In 1979, aged seventy, he embarked on a platonic friendship with a young man of twenty-five; this briefly disturbed his marriage, but he and Alvilde drew close to each other as she nursed him through serious illnesses in 1984 and 1988.
1991-97: JLM struggled bravely through his eighties, despite declining faculties and the spectre of cancer. His National Trust memoirs People & Places, written at eighty-three, is one of his most eloquent works. His diary became increasingly elegiac, as in old age he reflected upon the modern world and its ways. Alvilde's health broke down in 1992, and he devoted the next two years to looking after her. Her death in March 1994 at first left him disconsolate; yet he soon began to enjoy life again, experiencing a freedom he had not known since his marriage, and revelling in his status as a grand old man of letters and conservation. He remained lucid and active almost to the end, dying in his ninetieth year on 28 December 1997.
JLM was both a prolific and versatile author. Altogether he brought out thirty-four volumes during his lifetime, including works of architectural and general history, biographies, novels and memoirs.
It is however mainly for his diaries that he is now remembered, which have been described as 'one of the treasures of contemporary English literature'. Many have hailed him as the greatest English diarist of the twentieth century, and compared him to Samuel Pepys. As well as providing a wealth of fascinating detail about his work, friendships and attachments, JLM's diaries are remarkable for the sharpness with which he observes the world around him, the candour with which he writes about himself and others, his alternation of tone between the comic and the poignant, and his ability to capture the essence of a scene in a few words.
There were in fact two distinct periods during which he kept a regular diary, separated by more than two decades - 1942-49 and 1971-97. (The reason that he desisted in between - except for a few short periods - is that he did not wish to record the details of an often unhappy marriage.)
JLM edited his 1940s diaries in four volumes appearing between 1975 and 1985, each covering two years, to which he gave titles deriving from Coleridge's poem 'Kubla Khan' - Ancestral Voices, 1942-3 (1975); Prophesying Peace, 1944-5 (1977); Caves of Ice, 1946-7 (1983); and Midway on the Waves, 1948-9 (1985). The first three were published by Chatto & Windus, the fourth by Faber & Faber which proceeded to produce paperback editions of all four. First editions of these volumes now fetch high prices on the second-hand market.
During his last years JLM began editing his later diaries, all published by John Murray. They too were given 'Kubla Khan' titles - A Mingled Measure, 1953-72 (1994); Ancient as the Hills, 1973-4; Through Wood and Dale, 1975-8 (which JLM finished editing just before his death, being published posthumously in 1998).
After JLM's death, his literary executor Michael Bloch completed the editing of his diaries, producing five further volumes - Deep Romantic Chasm, 1979-81 (2000); Holy Dread, 1982-4 (2001); Beneath a Waning Moon, 1983-5 (2003); Ceaseless Turmoil, 1988-92 (2004); and The Milk of Paradise, 1993-97 (2005).
During 2006-2008 John Murray published a new, three-volume edition of the diaries, abridged by Michael Bloch. Since 2003, however, Michael Russell has been reprinting the twelve original volumes in his Clocktower Paperback series, reaching the ninth volume, Holy Dread, in 2008.
All of JLM's diaries - both in the twelve- and three-volume editions - may be purchased from the BOOKSHOP section of this website.
FROM SUSAN HILL'S ARTICLE ON DIARISTS IN THE GUARDIAN
(10 January 2004)
‘If you want to experience the merry-go-round of upper-middle-class life in the 20th century you can do no better than follow Lees-Milne, as sharp-tongued, melancholy, jaundiced and reactionary a commentator as ever lived. He does nothing to ingratiate himself with us, has no desire to be liked any more than he would like us. He hates modern life and times, laments the decline of almost everything, is a ferocious snob. But like all the best diarists and almost in spite of himself, he has the keenest of interests in life, a refusal to be only an old fuddy-duddy; he will try almost anything, from a new film or fashionable play to a young lover...’
James Lees-Milne: The Life by Michael Bloch
James Lees-Milne, diarist and saviour of our national treasures, is well served in this life, says Oliver Marre
Sunday 20 September 2009 00.07 BST
James Lees-Milne was visited on his deathbed by Prince Charles and found it "rather a strain". He had fallen ill while paying his annual visit to the Paris home of Oswald Mosley's widow, Diana, with her sister, the Duchess of Devonshire. He travelled there by Eurostar. This is all reported in the final paragraph of Michael Bloch's affectionate and respectful biography of Lees-Milne, a man employed for many years by the National Trust, but whose lasting reputation is likely to be founded on the seven volumes of waspish and elegant diaries published in his lifetime and five more brought out posthumously under the eye of Bloch, who is his literary executor as well as biographer.
These diaries present a problem for Bloch and one which, for all this book's successes, he never escapes. They are so readable and gossipy that the task of his biographer is a fairly thankless one. What is more, Bloch has been responsible for some excellent editing of the diaries, so their footnotes and introductions provide satisfactory background information on the people mentioned and how they came into contact with Lees-Milne.
None the less, as this biography's last paragraph suggests, Lees-Milne's story is an intriguing one. Who was this man, an arch-snob with connections with the Mosleys? Or an amusing iconoclast, refreshingly unimpressed by the ministrations of the heir to the throne? His life spanned the century from an Edwardian childhood to the era of trains under the Channel and the ascent of New Labour (he died in 1997), during which he managed to be an academic failure and an Oxford undergraduate; desperate for money and comfortably rich; sometimes homosexual and married to an occasional lesbian. He seems the quintessential Englishman of his class and generation and yet spent eight years living in the south of France.
Bloch addresses these contradictions and does not shy away from engaging with the less savoury episodes in the life of his old friend. "It appears," he writes at the end of chapter one, "that Jim did have sexual intercourse with his cousin..." Some weeks later, she was found to be pregnant and the child was stillborn. "He felt that he had forfeited all further right to father a child." Bloch's recounting of this story is definitely partisan: cousin Joanie "was evidently fairly free with her sexual favours," he tells us, so "there can be no certainty that the child was Jim's".
It isn't all like this. Bloch is careful to treat Lees-Milne's partial autobiography, Another Self, with scepticism. Is it true, for example, that his interest in saving the great country houses of Britain, an enterprise which, through the National Trust, took up much of his working life, dated from a rowdy student house party, when some moronic toffs used a rifle to take pot shots at the genitalia of priceless statues and used a riding crop to whip the paint off portraits by Kneller and Reynolds? It is a great story, which serves to portray Lees-Milne as an outsider in a winning way. But Bloch asks whether he was there at all, pointing out that eyewitnesses don't recall seeing him.
Relations between Bloch and Lees-Milne's wife, Alvilde, were not always warm and it is to the biographer's credit that she comes out of this book as a tolerant and sensible character. But James Lees-Milne, for all the grand friends, does not come across as a very happy man. He might have saved for the nation, by persuading their owners to hand them over to the National Trust, some architectural gems and he might have produced some well-written books, but he felt himself a failure, not least morally. His biographer, meanwhile, does not stop far short of hero worship. While this makes his mastery of the facts of Lees-Milne's life impressive, you end up feeling that you are being asked for sympathy rather than empathy and that's quite a lot for a biographer to seek.
James Lees-Milne: The Life by Michael Bloch: review
Michael Bloch's life of James Lees-Milne shows a man as fascinated by people as by his beloved buildings, says Selina Hastings
By Selina Hastings5:55AM BST 27 Sep 2009
James Lees-Milne (1908-1997) is known, first, as one of the great diarists of the 20th century and, second, for his heroic efforts in preserving dilapidated country houses for the National Trust. Once memorably described as 'the man who saved England’, Lees-Milne never received much recognition from the Trust itself and his battles over its increasingly bureaucratic approach provide one of the most entertaining themes in his journals.
Over the years, 12 volumes of diaries were published, as well as a memoir, Another Self, and it is greatly to Michael Bloch’s credit that his biography reveals so many new facets of the man, as well as of his times and his setting. Bloch knew his subject well: when Lees-Milne was in his seventies he fell deeply and platonically in love with the author, then 25 and a graduate at Cambridge, and for nearly 20 years the two maintained a close friendship. The writer’s affection and understanding has resulted in a remarkable study, a striking three-dimensional portrait of a subversive, sensitive and endearing man. Naturally, Bloch has made good use of the diaries, but he has gone far beyond them, investigating the long periods when nothing was written, as well as uncovering an intriguing and recurrent thread of fantasy.
Lees-Milne was brought up in Worcestershire, his parents, minor gentry uninterested in the arts, regarding their gentle, aesthete son as a sissy. After an undistinguished career at Oxford, and a miserable period as personal secretary to Sir Roderick Jones, chairman of Reuters, Lees-Milne in 1936 came almost by chance to his job at the Trust. In Another Self he famously tells the story of witnessing the drunken owner of a magnificent Jacobean house in Oxfordshire amusing himself and his dinner guests by lashing at the Reynoldses and Knellers with his riding crop and shooting at the statues on the terrace. Appalled, Lees-Milne described the occasion as a turning point in his life, the moment when he knew he wanted to 'devote my energies and abilities to preserving the country houses of England’. Interestingly, although the incident happened and the sentiment is authentic, Bloch reveals that Lees-Milne himself was not present.
Further fantasy is identified in other areas. Lees-Milne was a romantic; he was also physically passionate, and his love affairs with both men and women were numerous. Basically homosexual, he began his love-life at Eton with two outstanding charmers, Tom Mitford and Desmond Parsons. Many more affairs followed, including several with much older men, chief among them his patron, Harold Nicolson who, with his wife, Vita Sackville-West, remained dear friends for life.
But interspersed with these are some intriguing encounters, such as with the ravishing Theo, whom Lees-Milne found sitting next to him in the amphitheatre at Covent Garden and who, though never seen again, possessed his imagination for 40 years. 'A poignant tale’, Bloch comments, but almost certainly untrue.
At the age of 40 Lees-Milne met and subsequently married Alvilde Chaplin, a handsome termagant whose jealous nature came near to wrecking his life. Alvilde was herself lesbian, the girlfriend of Princess Winnie de Polignac and later of Sackville-West. She knew of her husband’s inclinations and yet, possessive and insecure, she found his extramural activities intolerable, steaming open his letters, making furious scenes and, more dangerously, ranting about his affairs to his colleagues at the Trust.
Admirably, Bloch, himself for a time the object of Alvilde’s hostility, deals with her difficult temperament with sympathy, despite a discernible relish in his description of some of her more electrifying rages. The eventual harmony that was established in the marriage towards the end is most touchingly described.
James Lees-Milne: The Life is an exceptional biography: lively, perceptive and well-written. As well as of his protagonist, Bloch paints a vivid portrait of his world, the pre-war country childhood, Eton and Oxford, the country houses and their owners, London during the war, the travels abroad. There is Lees-Milne’s own writing, his love for paintings and architecture, his life with Alvilde in France and in Gloucestershire, the many friendships and, of course, the National Trust, slowly transmuting from eccentric and amateur to a slick 'museumisation’. The diaries will never be superseded, but this book is their essential companion.
James Lees-Milne: The Life
By Michael Bloch
The National Trust bed-hopper who persuaded aristocrats he slept with - women AND men - to leave their homes to the nation
By MATTHEW WILSON
UPDATED: 13:00 GMT, 14 September 2009
Even back in the Thirties, anyone watching the scene might have guessed they were witnessing the end of an era.
Shortly after lunch, the grand doors of Longleat, one of Wiltshire's most celebrated stately homes, were thrown open and two rows of liveried footmen hurried out to line up on either side of the steps leading down to the drive.
After a short pause, two figures duly emerged, blinking in the sudden sunlight.
One, resplendent in his frock coat, was the old Lord Bath, one of the most courteous aristocrats of his day. The other was a handsome young man, politely pouring praise on the glories of the house and quietly pretending that this was the sort of thing that happened every day.
There would have been an awkward moment as Lord Bath waited for his guest's transport to be brought round to the front. But it already had; the rusty bicycle being held gingerly by a footman at the bottom of the steps was his guest's transport. The man from the National Trust was leaving in the same way he'd arrived - on his bike.
What James Lees-Milne, the young man on that bicycle, would always remember, however, was pausing after he had pedalled some considerable way down the long straight drive and turning for a last admiring look at the house.
There, still, was Lord Bath, flanked by his two rows of footmen, waiting at the top of the steps, impeccably observing the old-world tradition of remaining in view until one's guest was out of sight.
It didn't matter that the meeting had been unsuccessful, that Lord Bath would not be donating Longleat to the Trust.
That was the pattern of things, as Lees-Milne soon realised; at some grand houses he never made it past the front door, at others he was welcomed with open arms by families desperate to relieve themselves of the financial burden.
Lees-Milne - Jim to his friends and destined to become one of the most celebrated diarists of his day - had embarked on the work that more than half a century later would cause him to be described as 'the man who saved England'.
What the 28-year- old Oxford graduate was engaged in was saving England's stately homes - and one or two in Wales, too.
It was his pioneering work to persuade their aristocratic owners to donate their houses to the National Trust that helped turn it into the hugely successful institution that it is today, with more than 300 houses and 3.5 million members.
But back in the Thirties the Trust - already 40 years old but with barely 5,000 members - owned almost no grand country houses at all. That situation would slowly change, as Jim criss-crossed the country, searching for houses of sufficient architectural merit to justify the Trust acquiring them, and to begin the often tortuous process of persuading their aristocratic owners to part with them, often after centuries of family ownership.
Longleat House Wiltshire
You win some, you lose some: Jim Lees-Milne was unsuccessful in securing Longleat House in Wiltshire for the National Trust
But Jim, as charming and tactful as he was good-looking, was both persuasive and patient. One by one, some of the most important stately homes in Britain passed into the Trust's ownership, a process that accelerated significantly during World War II, as more and more owners realised the old order of things had gone for ever.
Jim, who was invalided out of the Irish Guards in 1941 after being caught in a bomb blast and developing a rare form of epilepsy, returned to the National Trust and found himself busier than ever, his work bringing him into daily contact with the rich tapestry that was England's often highly eccentric aristocracy.
Some owners received him in bed in their nightcaps, others took him to the estate pub; one particularly blimpish owner even proudly took him up to the tower to show him how he peppered the nearby lake with rifle-shots in winter to stop the locals skating on the ice. Jim took it all in his increasingly practised stride.
His success seemed hardly surprising. Born to a landed Worcestershire family and educated at Eton and Oxford at a time when both establishments were shamelessly elitist, Jim - as he flirted with elderly duchesses and politely deferred to curmudgeonly dukes - was, to outward appearances, simply mixing with his own sort of people.
But all was not as it seemed. Jim's father, George, had derived his fortune mainly from a Lancashire cotton mill and he had bought the house, Wickhamford Manor, where Jim was brought up, only two years before his son was born.
He was bisexual and, indeed, as a young man was rather keener on going to bed with men than with women
At a time when to be so closely associated with 'trade' could have spelt social death, it's not surprising that Jim kept fairly quiet about his background, simply describing his family as 'lower upper class'.
However, as Michael Bloch's fascinating new biography reveals, Jim had another secret, known to his circle of immensely well-connected friends - many of whom seem to have stumbled out of the pages of an Evelyn Waugh novel - but not to the outside world.
He was bisexual and, indeed, as a young man was rather keener on going to bed with men than with women.
At school and university, he had a steady succession of male lovers. At Eton, his great affair was with Tom Mitford, brother of the later famous Mitford sisters; at Oxford, his lovers included the future Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox-Boyd, and an up-and- coming young actor called John Gielgud, who would treat him to meals at the Spread Eagle tavern in Thame.
One of his greatest romantic interests was the fellow conservationist Rick Stewart-Jones.
But unlike many of his homosexual friends, Jim also enjoyed both the company and the physical charms of women.
Having lost his virginity at the age of 17 to a voluptuous, recently divorced cousin, Jim - a hopeless romantic - would fall sporadically in love with women for the rest of his life.
An early object of his affections, which were welcome but not wholly reciprocated, was Diana Mitford, to whom he was attracted not only because she was the most beautiful of the Mitford girls, but because she reminded him of his Eton flame, Tom.
Shortly after coming down from Oxford in 1931 and finding himself with little idea of what to do next, Jim worked as a political campaigner for Sir Oswald Mosley, who had founded his New Party in 1930 (he would not embrace fascism until 1932) and was now fighting the General Election.
Mosley, whose aunt had married Jim's uncle, had not yet met his future wife Diana Mitford, with whom Jim had recently been in love.
Mosley lost in Stoke-on-Trent, but not before Jim had met another New Party candidate, someone who was to become one of the most influential figures in his life - Harold Nicolson, ex-diplomat and man of letters who combined marriage to Vita Sackville-West - the poet, author and celebrated creator of the garden at Sissinghurst in Kent - with a penchant for the company of intelligent, always handsome young men.
What the world knows now, of course, but was then known only to a select few, was that the Nicolson-Sackville-West marriage was highly unusual.
While devoted to each other and having produced two sons, they were both basically homosexual and allowed each other complete freedom to pursue their respective sexual interests.
At Oxford, James Lees-Milne's lovers included the up-and-coming young actor John Gielgud and in 1934 he was introduced to James Joyce in Paris
Within two years, Nicolson was pursuing his interest in Jim with enthusiasm. He frequently invited him to dinner in London and, in 1934, whisked him off to Paris (while Vita was in Italy conducting an affair with Harold's sister, Gwen St Subyn).
It was in the French capital that he introduced the impressionable 25-year-old, with his youthful passion for famous writers, to James Joyce, author of the acclaimed but controversial novel Ulysses.
In his subsequent and discreetly worded letter to Jim, Nicolson, 22 years his senior, encouraged the younger man to have no regrets about what had passed between them on that trip.
It was, he wrote, quite possible to derive both affection and tenderness from contacts that others might find objectionable.
Jim and Harold were to remain close friends for the rest of the older man's life.
Jim would live with him at his London flat in Kings Bench Walk, and seek his urgent advice when he fell in love with - and for a time became engaged to - Lady Anne Gathorne-Hardy (Nicolson advised that the basis of a successful marriage was intelligence and esteem, not physical lust).
And it was Harold's influence, after a tip-off from Vita, that secured Jim the job at the National Trust.
Jim may not have been entirely surprised by the Nicolsons' unusual arrangements. His own mother and father both had flings and longstanding affairs during their nevertheless enduring marriage.
His beautiful and flirtatious mother, upon whom Jim had doted as a child, ended World War I far closer to Jim's dashing, polo-playing godfather then she was to her own husband.
Not surprisingly George Lees-Milne, a man whose main passions were hunting, shooting and fishing, and who disapproved so strongly of his son's 'cissiness' that he denied him financial assistance, sought consolation elsewhere.
Given the example set by his parents and the Nicolsons, Jim may have had something similar in mind when, in 1951, at the age of 43, and to the surprise of his friends, he decided to get married himself.
What he couldn't have known, however, was how miserable what ensued would make him.
His beautiful and flirtatious mother ended World War I far closer to Jim's dashing, polo-playing godfather then she was to her own husband
The object of his heterosexual affections was Alvilde Chaplin, a wealthy heiress who was still married to her first husband when Jim met her.
There is no doubt he was genuinely smitten - Alvilde was intelligent, sharp and an accomplished hostess and organiser.
Perhaps too equine to be described as pretty, Jim would later describe her beauty as 'proud, guarded, even shrouded'. But, as others had already discovered, she could also be aloof, impatient, dictatorial, argumentative and possessive.
Even her unusual Christian name should have been a warning. Her father, General Sir Tom Bridges, was, as well as being a successful soldier and diplomat, a notorious philanderer.
While serving with military intelligence in Scandinavia, he had conducted an affair with a Norwegian ballerina of that name.
When his pregnant wife, Janet, discovered the affair, it is said she insisted on giving the child the name of his mistress as a permanent reminder to her husband of his adultery.
Alvilde confessed to Jim that, as a girl, she had herself succumbed to her father's sexual advances. Small wonder - especially after her first husband turned out to be another serial seducer of young women - that she preferred the company of sexually ambiguous men such as Jim.
But, like Vita Sackville-West, Alvilde also enjoyed the company of women; indeed in Paris in 1937, tormented by her husband's infidelities, she began a long lesbian affair with the city's great musical hostess, Princess Winnie de Polignac. The Princess was 72 at the time, Alvilde just 27.
Jim, who had met Alvilde with the Princess shortly before the latter's death in 1943, would have been aware of this when, six years later, he started seeing Alvilde regularly in London. (She was now a rich woman, having inherited a slice of the Princess's enormous fortune.)
Jim had a habit of falling in love with people who reminded him of others he had known in the past and in Alvilde's case, it seems that her determined personality reminded him of Kathleen Kennet, the sculptor and widow of the polar explorer Captain Scott, with whom Jim had forged a deep friendship as a young man that had bordered on the erotic.
Jim's romance with Alvilde proceeded at some pace; a succession of dinners and trips to the theatre and cinema was eventually followed by a holiday in Italy, which not only saw Jim having to borrow money to get there, but was taken with Alvilde's zoologist husband, Anthony, in full attendance.
Anthony was quite relaxed about the relationship, as throughout his marriage he enthusiastically pursued women on his own account.
Jim had fallen in love with Alvilde, writing in his diary. 'My mind a turmoil. A fire has been lit.' It was, he said, the first time his love for a woman had been fully reciprocated.
Alvilde divorced her husband and, on November 19, 1951, she married Jim at Chelsea Register Office, despite his concerns about her argumentative and possessive nature.
There were four witnesses, including Harold and Vita and James Pope Hennessy, the exotically handsome and quick-witted young man who had taken Jim's place in Harold's life.
Two more couples joined the party for lunch, and Jim must have taken quiet reassurance for the matrimonial life ahead that of the five men present, including the three husbands, all were homosexual; three of them being his own ex-lovers.
It may also not have escaped Jim's notice that of the women present, at least two had experience of lesbian relationships: Vita, obviously, and Alvilde.
Married life did not work out quite as Jim had presumably planned, although for the first few years the couple were happy, helped by the fact that for part of the year they lived apart - Alvilde in tax exile in the south of France, while Jim returned to London to work part-time for the National Trust and to resume his bachelor lifestyle.
These periods of separation worked as a safety valve.
It's not clear when the unhappy aspects of his marriage began to outweigh the happy ones, but certainly by 1958, Jim felt trapped in a union he considered a mistake.
Alvilde had declined to have further sexual relations with him. For a still highly physical man, this must have been a terrible blow and Jim compensated with a series of transient homosexual affairs.
Why had she gone off sex with her husband? There was one possible, if extraordinary explanation: Alvilde had abandoned herself to a passionate lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West, whose husband had, of course, been Jim's lover 20 years previously.
Alvilde said nothing to Jim about the affair until it was almost over, and nor did Vita mention it to Harold. But Jim certainly knew about it, given that letters arrived for Alvilde from Vita 'almost daily for several years'.
Those letters - now archived in New York Public Library - make it clear that by 1955 the two women were much in love, although Vita was racked with guilt for the potential hurt it would do Jim, who had been her friend for almost as long as he had been Harold's.
But finally, at Sissinghurst, on October 26, 1955, under a full moon, their love was consummated.
When, in October 1958, shortly after his 50th birthday, Jim fell desperately in love, a marital crisis loomed
Alvilde's growing and genuine passion for gardening gave her the pretext for visits to Sissinghurst, and Vita's letters to her lover began to be spiced with love-verses.
Vita, however, whose past loves included socialite Violet Trefusis and novelist Virginia Woolf, was as famous for her lesbian passions fading as she was for starting them in the first place, and in 1957 she wrote to Alvilde bringing their affair to a close. There could be no more 'LL' - lesbian love. Alvilde was consumed with grief.
In the circumstances, Jim could be forgiven for thinking that his own romantic adventures would now be tolerated by Alvilde, but he couldn't have been more wrong. With Vita out of her life, Alvilde turned her famous possessiveness on her husband.
So when, in October 1958, shortly after his 50th birthday, Jim fell desperately in love, a marital crisis loomed. The object of his considerable affections was a handsome 27-year-old who, ironically, was introduced to him by Harold Nicolson.
Harold hoped Jim would be able to help the young man, who had an extensive knowledge of both architecture and sculpture, to get a job at the National Trust, just as Harold had helped Jim more than 20 years earlier.
Jim and his protege were immediately attracted to each other, with Jim no doubt seeing a reflection of his own youth in the younger man. Almost overnight, his mid-life melancholia turned to euphoria. However, when Alvilde learned of Jim's love for his new friend, she hit the roof.
After her suspicions had been confirmed by steaming open a few letters (a habit that was to stay with her for the rest of her life), she confronted Jim. Believing her own affair with Vita had set a precedent, Jim confessed freely. It was a dreadful mistake.
Alvilde was consumed with jealousy. Terrible scenes ensued, and many of their friends regarded the marriage as doomed.
Although relations between Jim and Alvilde were never quite the same again, and she remained both suspicious and jealous of his male friends, the marriage endured.
What saved it was their discovery of a house they both adored in the Cotswolds, where they went to live in 1961.
Alderley Grange, a Jacobean house with Georgian additions, was of sufficient architectural interest to satisfy Jim, while its large garden enabled Alvilde to indulge her passion for gardening, which had been encouraged by Vita (and which would later result in a new career designing gardens for such celebrities as Mick Jagger).
It was, to all intents and purposes, their Sissinghurst and would keep them busy for years. They would live there - increasingly happier as they got older - for the next 14 years.
The man who saved England, the man who had bicycled his way up so many an aristocratic drive, had been saved by his own little corner of English country life.
• James Lees-Milne: The Life, by Michael Bloch is published by John Murray at £25. To order at £22.50 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.