Letters to Max Beerbohm by Siegfried Sassoon

Max B Siegfriend SOne 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.

Dearest Andrew (letters by Vita Sackville-West)

Guys, set your faces to impressed, because I’ve already read the first book I’ve bought in Project 24. I bought my second one today (more on that another day – or right now if you scroll through my Twitter feed) but if I keep this up – and I definitely, definitely won’t – then I’ll have finished all 24 books this year.

Dearest AndrewIt helped, of course, that the book was relatively slim. Dearest Andrew: Letters from V. Sackville-West to Andrew Reiber 1951-1962 (published in 1980) has a very long title for a book that is only 127 pages long. There is only one half of the collection, which the editor Nancy MacKnight explains as a case of Andrew wanting Vita Sackville-West to be centre stage – though the less charitable among us might suspect that she didn’t keep his letters.

They didn’t know each other when the correspondence started. It kicked off because Andrew – who lived in Maine – had a friend nearby who wanted to visit Sissinghurst, Vita’s beautiful home and garden. Said friend never actually got to Sissinghurst, but Vita’s reply was so encouraging that Andrew braved writing again – and so, after some fits and starts, their friendship begins and would last until Vita’s death.

The title of the collection is how Vita addressed him – after rather an interesting realisation about greetings in British English and American English – is this still the case?

My dear Andrew. No, I am given to understand that the American and the English habit is reversed. To us, My dear is a far warmer form than just Dear, yet if I put just Dear Andrew it looks so cold and formal to my English eyes. And if my American publisher begins his letter to me My dear it looks very personal and intimate! so what is one to do? I shall take refuge in Dearest Andrew which is what we reserve for our real friends.

The one review I found of this book is quite critical, suggesting that it’s a bit boring because it’s mostly about gardening, day-to-day events, and minutiae. Well, that’s exactly why I liked it so much. I enjoy letters because they show us the real person – and while I love reading an author’s thoughts on writing, I’m also rather enamoured by their easy, unthinking chatting about normal life. My only criticism is that there is perhaps too much framing from the editor, and quite a few of the letters are clearly not included.

So, perhaps not the best place to start for readers new to Vita Sackville-West – but if you know a little about her, or have read her writing, then I think this is a fun addition to her oeuvre.

Joy Street

I’ve mentioned on here before that I like to have a diary or collection of letters ‘on the go’ most of the time – and yesterday I finished the current read. It’s Joy Street: A Wartime Romance in Letters by Mirren Barford and John Lewes (ed. Michael T. Wise), and was a gift from my dear friend Phoebe, who always knows what to buy me.

These letters were sent between Mirren Barford, studying at Somerville College in Oxford, and Lieutenant John Lewes, also known as Jock, who was away fighting. They take up less than two years, in 1940 and 1941, but cover a whole spectrum of emotions, thoughts, philosophies, and document the growing relationship between the young letter writers. What starts out fairly cool becomes a romantic exchange – with all the peaks and troughs that might suggest – and eventually more or less an engagement. ‘Joy Street’ became something of a symbol between them – as a destination for their future, united happiness. From the letters we grow to understand so much about Mirren and John – their differences (they almost split over his intense desire to be a soldier, and her hatred of warfare), their connections, their subtle steps towards one another and their backward glances. This between two people who only had the chance to meet ten times – the reader knows from the outset that John did not return from war. The letter Mirren writes to his parents, months after his death, is quite incredibly moving. I have never lost anybody very close to me, but I shall return to this letter when I do.

It’s always a little uncomfortable reading people’s private letters, especially without their permission. Mirren was dead when this correspondence was discovered in the 1990s by her son. Here are three interesting excerpts on this topic:

[Mirren] Once I thought I could write a pretty phrase or two, but your letter with its magnificence has shattered all my illusions and makes me feel really weak. It was a fine letter; one day I hope my great-grandchildren will take the trouble to have them published for many people would read them gladly if they had the chance.

[John] Your reception of my letter is gracious and generous; your praise is very dear to me always and on this occasion it could not have been higher than by saying that many people would read my letters gladly if they had the chance. And yet the publication of our correspondence is unthinkable, for it is so essentially private to us as almost to be written in code undecipherable to others. Readers may detect a felicity of phrase and even at times magnificence, but the significance of Penelope’s design, wherein surely its chiefest value lies, must inevitably escape them unless they are supplied with a key

[John] It is a very great loss to all who read and write letters and journals that considerations of security forbid the detailed description of the lives that are being led in the multiform war. That is a loss to history and scientific record but it is no loss to literature, for writing is only worthy of that name which submits to a discipline both of substance and of form. and so perhaps, when this war’s writing comes to be read and reckoned up as literature, it may be placed in a higher norm than the indiscriminate journalism which is so well thought of now. The things that matter are not the things that happen, but rather things that grow, and literature if it is to live must deal with life directly and not indirectly through its accidents. […] And so the Journal to Mirren is not for the curious, who would find it dull indeed. It is for a lover of life, and its purpose is to try and present another life as worthy of that love.

Usually, reading collections of letters, there are all sorts of meetings or ‘phone calls which we only hear about in passing; visits which are referred to, or the building blocks of a relationship which the reader cannot grasp decades later. With Joy Street, although there are a few meetings between the couple, we are privileged to witness the majority of their growing attachment. Almost everything that was built between them was built through these letters. And because they are real, they naturally have an authenticity that no novelist could fully craft.

In a letter which John never read, sent but not received before his death, Mirren writes:
Indeed, I want you to go on being alive. Maybe we’ll never marry, but that isn’t the most important thing. You’ll go on, and you’ll give of yourself to the world, for you have the power. And I’ll go on too. If I’m ever capable of loving someone more than I love you, then there is no reason why my little ideal should be wrecked. If you die before we have had time to be together, at least I shall have the faith and love you have given me, deep rooted and eternal in my soul. And with that knowledge, I’ll never be defeated; I may fail to do as much as I hoped but I’ll never be defeated. And if I’m killed and you still love me as you do, then – I don’t know how you’ll feel. But I do know John, that you have given me something, and I, perhaps, to you, that no man or god can ever destroy. We call it faith, ideals, hope, but do we really and truly know what it is? I don’t think so, and I don’t think it matters, either. But it does matter that it is present, unforgettable, a part of my own self.

Books to get Stuck into:

In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill: the best book about grief that I have read, or can imagine reading.

Love Letters by Leonard Woolf & Trekkie Ritchie Parsons: the letters between Leonard and the woman he loved after Virginia are perhaps more revealing than Leonard would have liked, and a fascinating portrait of an unusual coupling.