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.
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
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
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.
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).
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...’
Lees-Milne: The Life by Michael Bloch
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Hastings5:55AM BST 27 Sep 2009
(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
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Michael Bloch
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
When, in October
1958, shortly after his 50th birthday, Jim fell desperately in love,
a marital crisis loomed
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
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.
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 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.
between Jim and Alvilde were never quite the same again, and she
remained both suspicious and jealous of his male friends, the
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
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.