One of the nicest bookish finds is when you discover that two authors you like kept a correspondence. Sylvia Townsend Warner and David Garnett; William Maxwell and Eudora Welty; Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell. When people you like independently turn out to have connections, it’s like discovering two of your friends actually went to uni together. So imagine my happiness when I found a book of letters between Siegfried Sassoon and Max Beerbohm!
Granted, I haven’t actually read anything by Sassoon, but I grew very fond of him when I read another book of unexpected connections – Anna Thomasson’s A Curious Friendship, about Rex Whistler and Edith Olivier, but featuring a fair dose of Sassoon.
The full title of this collection, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, is Letters to Max Beerbohm & A Few Answers (1986). There are few answers not because they’ve been lost, but because Beerbohm was famously bad at writing them. His friends seem to have been pretty tolerant about this, and his letters (when he does write them) are friendly, fluid, and charming – but Sassoon bears the lion’s share of this exchange. Even this doesn’t quite make up enough for a book, and Hart-Davis has rifled through Sassoon’s diaries for more information to set the scene. (Hart-Davis’ footnotes are also occasionally rather amusing – for instance, he describes Sibyl Colefax as ‘relentless society hostess’.)
Who comes off the page? I got the impression that Sassoon was much younger than Beerbohm – each letter is soaked with a sort of affectionate awe. It turns out that, for the bulk of their correspondence (in the 1930s), Beerbohm was in his 60s and Sassoon was in his late 40s and early 50s. A difference, yes, but not as much a one as comes across.
They both write letters that speak of deep friendship (and a curious resentment of Yeats). They are witty, thoughtful, and show a closeness and respect that you wouldn’t be able to get except through reading a book of this sort. They also have sketches and jottings by Siegfried, which are great fun, as well as verse that he throws into the letters – presumably fairly off the cuff.
The diary entries are well chosen, giving context to their friendship, and the mix of diary and letters works well. I enjoyed this description of their friendship, from Sassoon:
Conversing with Max, everything turns to entertainment and delectable humour and evocation of the past. […] Not a thousandth part can be recorded. But I feel that these talks with Max permanently enrich my mind, and no doubt much of it will recur spontaneously in future memories; he is like travelling abroad – one feels the benefit afterwards.
Well, we have certainly benefit afterwards. This is a slight book, and I certainly wish they had written to each other more prolifically. If they had, this might have been up there with the William Maxwell/Sylvia Townsend Warner collection of letters (The Element of Lavishness) as one of the great literary correspondences. As it is, it is a brief and brilliant gem that will enhance an appreciation of either Sassoon or Beerbohm.