BOOKS: FANCY TAKING ON SIEGFRIED?

Pat Barker's 'Regeneration' trilogy brought Siegfried Sassoon to the the attention of a new generation. Yet up to now, the full story of his life after World War One has remained untold. Mark Bostridge unravels the tangled history of the estate and the poet's biographers
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The Independent Culture
My real biography is my poetry," Siegfried Sassoon once told Dame Felicitas Corrigan, the chronicler of his spiritual life; which, one might add, is just as well. For in the 30 years since Sassoon's death in September 1967, at the age of 81, no authoritative biography of him has ever appeared. He is among the most famous of the poets of the Great War and, incidentally, was probably the first of them to enlist in August 1914 (by 4 August he had had his Army Medical, and was already in his ill- fitting khaki). His prose trilogy about his early life and war experiences, the skillfully fictionalised Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and Sherston's Progress began to appear during the late Twenties' boom in the literature of war disillusionment, and has always been enormously popular with readers and critics. And yet, unlike Brooke, Owen, Graves, Blunden or Rosenberg, the full story of Siegfried Sassoon's life has remained untold.

This lamentable situation is about to be redressed with a vengeance. This year will see the publication of two biographies: volume one of a projected two-volume life by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, subtitled The Making of a War Poet (Duckworth, May), takes Sassoon's life up to 1918, while John Stuart Roberts' Siegfried Sassoon (Richard Cohen, September) describes itself as the first complete portrait. Additionally, the first full-scale critical study of Sassoon in three decades has recently appeared. Paul Moeyes's Siegfried Sassoon: Scorched Glory (Macmillan, pounds 40) spans Sassoon's entire output from the derivative, Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite-inspired early verse, through the famous war satires, to the late poetry which traces the spiritual pilgrimage of Sassoon's final years.

Furthermore, there has been confirmation in recent weeks that Sir Rupert Hart-Davis, Sassoon's literary executor, and George Sassoon, the only child of Sassoon's marriage to Hester Gatty, have reached agreement on the appointment of Max Egremont as authorised biographer. George Sassoon, long opposed to any biography of his father, has given Egremont "exclusive access" to those of Sassoon's papers still in his possession, including the original diaries, estimated to run to a million words, and has promised "full co-operation". Egremont then, at some point - no doubt in the distant future - will produce another, officially sanctioned, version of events.

To Professor Jon Stallworthy, who was for a period Sassoon's official biographer until he abandoned the project earlier this year, this "feeding frenzy" of biographers on the Sassoon story was entirely predictable, and has become even more so since Pat Barker's novel Regeneration (1991), and the subsequent film version, reintroduced Sassoon's 1917 protest against the war, and resurrected him as an iconic hero. Why, though, has it taken so long for a biography to be written?

Part of the answer lies in the widespread dispersal of the Sassoon manuscripts through the salerooms from Sassoon's home at Heytesbury House, the large stone manor near Warminster. The archive has been sold off piecemeal by George Sassoon, much of it to private collectors, and for any serious researcher to try to reassemble it now would be an almost impossible task. Sir Geoffrey Keynes, a friend of Sassoon's who had hoped to be appointed his literary executor, referred in his autobiography to the auction of the Sassoon papers as the "Rape of Heytesbury". Subsequent sales at Sotheby's throughout the early Nineties left the remainder of Sassoon's most important manuscripts in the hands of libraries and collectors in the United States.

A further obstacle to deter any would-be biographer has been the attitude of the Sassoon estate. The biographer of J R Ackerley, Peter Parker, who is currently writing about Christopher Isherwood, is one of a long line of people who approached the Estate in the Seventies and Eighties as prospective biographers. One of the main problems, he believes, is the "unusual arrangement" governing the management of the literary estate. While Rupert Hart-Davis is effectively the literary executor (or "literary advisor" as Hart- Davis is called), George Sassoon owns the copyright, and the two men don't always appear to have been in agreement. "Because there are two opposing camps," Parker says, "writing a biography of Sassoon is always going to be difficult."

The most cursory glance at Sassoon's life after the First World War immediately reveals the kind of sensitive issues involved. His post-war life was confused, experimental, even chaotic. In the Twenties he had three unsatisfactory homosexual affairs in quick succession, with the artist Gabriel Atkin ("like cheap liqueur", Sassoon said), with Prince Philip of Hesse, and with the theatrical director Glen Byam Shaw, before embarking on a strangely ethereal romance with Stephen Tennant, aesthete and exotic beauty (to Edith Sitwell, Tennant was "Little Lord Fauntleroy" to Sassoon's "Aged Earl"). The collapse of this relationship, which had seemed at one time to Sassoon to promise so much, produced a revulsion in him against homosexual life, and in 1933 he married Hester Gatty, a bright, lively young woman, 20 years his junior.

But the marriage failed. A too- possessive wife irritated the moody and neurotic poet, and even his friends admitted that he was not easy to live with (T E Lawrence liked Hester but thought her "a foolhardy creature", and commented, "Fancy taking on SS"). Both doted on their son, George, born in 1936, but increasingly he was to become a pawn in the civil war between them as their relationship disintegrated. Eventually they lived apart, while remaining married. This later period of Sassoon's life was spent in melancholy seclusion at Heytesbury. Ackerley, who visited him there in 1949, described him as "sweet, kind, loquacious ... lonely, dreadfully self-centred and self-absorbed", worrying over his neglect as a poet, musing on his past fame, and full of passionate love for his son. Only with his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1957 does a new Sassoon emerge, strengthened and reinvigorated.

It's not difficult to sympathise with George Sassoon's reluctance to see the breakdown of his parents' marriage rehearsed and dissected in print; and this reluctance may explain the fact that Sassoon's later diaries have never been published (the Faber edition only takes him to 1925), despite Rupert Hart-Davis's assurances as editor that further volumes would follow. But the question of Sassoon's troubled sexuality is so integral to an understanding of his life and work that it cannot be ignored by anyone wishing to write his life story.

It was also a story that Sassoon himself longed to tell. In 1921 he wrote in his diary of his dream of writing a literary masterpiece, "another Madame Bovary dealing with sexual inversion, a book that the world must recognize and learn to understand!". The previous year, E M Forster had lent Sassoon his unpublished homosexual novel, Maurice, which Sassoon had greatly admired, and had offered to show him some short stories he had written revolving around the same kind of subject matter. He told Sassoon of his relief that he had "got this stuff off my chest", and advised him to do the same. But Sassoon's book remained unwritten, and he started instead to work on the Sherston memoirs. From time to time, though, he would return to the dream of writing a Proustian masterpiece about his life, but he was unable to be frank, fearing the legal implications and the possible comeback from his society friends. He was torn, too, by the contradictory elements in his character: between the more reticent, private side of his personality, inherited from his English ancestors, the Thorneycrofts, and the more relaxed, Eastern influences of his father's family, the Sassoons.

Sassoon's preoccupation with his homosexuality runs like a thread through his life, though certainly no one was ever quite so glum about being gay. Moorcroft Wilson prints a letter of 1911 from Sassoon to Edward Carpenter, a leading expert on sexual inversion, who had published a collection of essays entitled The Intermediate Sex. Sassoon, who had left Cambridge without taking a degree and was by then enjoying a life of fox-hunting and versifying at home in Kent, wrote to Carpenter to tell him that as a result of reading his book, "a new life" had been opened up to him. After a time "of great perplexity & unhappiness" in which he had remained "entirely unspotted, as I am now" he had come to see "the intense attraction I felt for my own sex" in a more positive light. At the Front during the war, as a Captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, Sassoon formed a number of intense attachments, and it was the strength of his feelings for some of his fellow officers and the men under his command, which he sublimated in his help and care for them, which partly led to his courageous protest in 1917 against the prolongation of the war.

Moorcroft Wilson started work on her book in 1990, and is unapologetic about its length, saying that she hopes it will encourage people to begin reading Sassoon again. Her mastery of detail is impressive, but what distinguishes her approach is the way in which she analyses the war poetry, placing it in its biographical context, and revealing Sassoon's progress from Brooke-like enthusiasm in 1914 in "Absolution" ("War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise, / And, fighting for freedom, we are free"), through the angry satires, to the striking of a more prophetic note in the poetry written towards the end of the war.

She has been able to take advantage of the release of the official army papers at the Public Record Office, at the beginning of the year, to show the alarm generated at the highest levels of government and the intelligence services by Sassoon's statement against "the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed".

A medical board hearing ruled that he was "suffering from a medical breakdown", and therefore not responsible for his actions. But Moorcroft Wilson argues that, far from being a victim of shell-shock (for instance, he appears to have had none of the physical symptoms of the condition), Sassoon's behaviour suggests an almost too rational response to the hysteria of patriotism and warmongering. He was sent to the military hospital at Craiglockhart where his celebrated relationship with Wilfred Owen began in August 1917.

The extraordinary coincidence of their meeting had significant ramifications for Owen's development as a war poet; what is less often recognised is that it benefited Sassoon's poetry as well, encouraging Sassoon to get closer to Owen's method of approach in depicting the war more impersonally, and as much "above the battle" as he could.

In later years Sassoon came to resent being labelled as "a war poet". While he achieved great success through his prose works, his post-war collections of poetry were much less well received, and indeed often give the impression that he possessed neither a poetic voice nor, now that the war was over, a subject to write about. John Stuart Roberts, a former Head of Television Wales, is hoping to change this perception of Sassoon in his biography, published later this year, in which he argues that "The real Sassoon is post-1918". Certainly this Sassoon is a less familiar one than the wartime figure of "Mad Jack", the reckless hero of the trenches. Placing emphasis on Sequences, a collection from the Fifties, Roberts intends to show that Sassoon's later poetry is a faithful account of Sassoon's human struggle in which he learned the loss of hope and discovered the joy of "sightless seeing".

This accords well with Sassoon's own wishes for his epitaph. "Oh dear," he wrote towards the end of his life, "if only things would stop happening! Not that much does happen to my seclusion. I just go on being told that I am a war poet, when all I want is to be told that I am only a pilgrim and a stranger on earth, utterly dependent on the idea of God's providence to my spiritual being."

8 'Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet' by Jean Moorcroft Wilson is published by Duckworth on 28 May at pounds 25.

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