There isn’t much about the late Victorian, Edwardian, and World War I era that doesn’t interest me. The war poets are a source of great interest. I love Rupert Brooke and enjoyed reading Wilfred Owens and others, too. Sassoon is new to me–I knew OF him but had not read anything by him.
“Outwardly monotonous, my life was made up of that series of small inward happenings which belong to the development of any intelligent little boy who spends a fair amount of time with no companion but himself. In this way I continued to fabricate for myself an intensely local and limited world,” (p. 22).
George is a young man soon off to his prep school [boarding school for elementary school students] to prepare for his public school [boarding secondary school] when the book opens. He is the ward of his loving maiden aunt. Her groom, Dixon, also has a hand in raising him as does his tutor and, at a distance the gentleman who manages his inheritance. Few children at any point in history have had such an idyllic childhood as a youngster so fixed in the last days of Queen Victoria and the first days of Edward VII. While Aunt Evelyn’s country home is not vast or situated in one of the fashionable counties, it provides George with all that he needs–room for a pony and lots of books.
“Often when I came home for five o’clock tea I felt a vague desire to be living somewhere else–in 1850, for instance, when everything must have been so comfortable and old-fashioned, like the Cathedral Close in Trollope’s novels” (p. 90).
Over time, with Dixon coaching him, George takes to hunting. (Note to American readers. In the UK, “Fox Hunting” is just called “Hunting.” Hunting any type of bird is called “shooting” and hunting deer is known as “stalking”–the term came about well before the current meaning of the word, the same principle though). Back to the story. Dixon soon has a pony for George picked out. Aunt Evelyn sees nothing wrong with George, a young Gentleman, doing nothing much except hunting. So, until World War I (“The Great War”) intervenes, that’s pretty much all he does. But, with a poet telling the story you can believe me it is glorious! After all, as one wag tells him: “[I’d] sooner cheer a pack of Pomeranians after a weasel from a bath-chair than waste [my] life making money in a blinking office” (p. 136).
The hunt consumes young George. He loves the atmosphere, the characters, the clothing, the manners, the society, the whole of it.
“And how could I forget them, those evergreen characters…. Sober-faced squires, with their civil greetings and knowing eyes for the run of a fox; the landscape belonged to them and they to the homely landscape. Weather-beaten farmers, for whom the activities of the Hunt were genial interludes in the stubborn succession of good and bad seasons out of which they made a living on their low-lying clay or wind-swept downland acres. These people were the pillars of the Hunt….” (p. 172).
The wild rides out hunting, claiming the cup in point-to-points, the quiet, blissfully peaceful days at home, the trips to London for the tailor for a new hunting coat where the tailor looked George over “with the bland half-disdainful interrogation of a ducal butler” (p. 115)–it all came to an end with the coming of war in August 1914. Interestingly, George enlists as a common private in the Yeomanry (Americans–think National Guard). Eventually, he seeks and wins a commission in the Flintshire Fusiliers. (Hands up, Downton Abbey fans if you read “Flintshire” and immediately thought “Shrimpy”).
So taken with hunting was young George, that out riding cavalry or officers horses to give them exercise behind the lines, he pretends to be out on the hunt imagining the day’s “going” in just the same way a small boy might kick a football and imagine himself in a tied match, the crowd roaring and he gets his one shot at the tie-breaking goal.
The war, though, is not lovely. George loses dear friends, spends time as a transport officer, and ultimately enters the trenches. Even though the muck of mud and the horror of shelling and mustard gas surrounds him, George recalls a conversation with a man in the trench–a man with no claim to aristocracy or even gentry, yet they talk of:
“…how I wish I was a Cathedral organist” [the man remarked]. “His remark, which had no connection to any religious feeling, led us on to pleasant reminiscences of cathedral closes. Nothing would be nicer, we thought, than to be sauntering back, after Evensong, to one of those snug old houses, with a book of anthems under our arms–preferably on a mild evening toward the end of October” (p. 305).
The story ends on Easter Sunday, with George revealing that he “could find no consolation in the thought that Christ was risen. This note left me feeling sad and tears welling in my eyes. Not out of any feeling of evangelical calling, but that such a time of hopelessness was foisted by men upon men. A war that took a generation had reason to be skeptical of any source of hope.
Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon.