Siegfried Sassoon by Max Egremont

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The Independent Culture

Then, in the late 1990s, two biographies appeared. In 1998, Jean Moorcroft-Wilson published the first of a two-volume life, taking Sassoon to the end of the First World War (the second volume appeared in 2003). Soon afterwards, John Stuart Roberts produced his Siegfried Sassoon, which described itself as the first complete portrait and argued that the "real Sassoon" was not the reckless hero of the trenches, but the post-1918 figure who learned the loss of hope and whose spiritual quest uncovered the joy of "sightless seeing". At the same time, a major critical study appeared, by Paul Moeyes. It spanned Sassoon's entire output, from the derivative, Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite-inspired early verses, through the famous war satires, to the late poetry, tracing the pilgrimage of the later years. And if this wasn't enough, Sassoon's experiences in the First World War, in which he was awarded the MC and then became an outspoken opponent of the war, refusing further orders and risking court martial, formed the basis of a number of novels and plays, the most famous of which, Pat Barker's Regeneration, was in turn adapted as a film, in 1997.

So the first question to ask about Max Egremont's book is, is there anything more to say? The answer is both yes and no. The broad trajectory of the life, familiar from the earlier biographies, and, for the earlier years, from Sassoon's own prose trilogies, remains unaltered, breaking down into five main sections. The first is the dreamy, foxhunting youth who wrote "melodious ramblings". In the second phase, the war years, which were to overshadow the remainder of his life, Sassoon enlisted, suffered disillusionment, and became a famous poet. In the 1920s, the third period, he embarked on a confused, experimental, even chaotic lifestyle, centring on his strangely ethereal romance with the aesthete and exotic beauty, Stephen Tennant (who, as Edith Sitwell had it, played "Little Lord Fauntleroy" to Sassoon's "Aged Earl"). The collapse of this relationship in the early 1930s, led into the penultimate phase, and Sassoon's marriage in 1933 to Hester Gatty, which produced a son, George, before their relationship crumbled, amid accusations on Sassoon's part of his wife's possessiveness, during the Second World War. Sassoon's final years were marked by his conversion to Roman Catholicism, reclusiveness, and intense love for his son.

Where his new biographer scores is in his depiction of Sassoon from his middle years. Writing with George Sassoon's cooperation, and drawing on Sassoon's unpublished diaries from 1926 onwards - Hart-Davis's Faber edition only reached 1925 - Egremont is able to present a fuller and more sympathetic portrait of Sassoon's troubled sexuality. This was a story that Sassoon himself longed to tell - "another Madame Bovary dealing with sexual inversion, a book that the world must recognise and learn to understand" - but he was torn by the conflicting 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. Instead, Egremont tells it for him: "In Sassoon, the wish to protect, then strengthen and change a weaker person - usually a man - was very strong, taking the place of robust, equal friendship or love". The relationship with Tennant, which appears to have produced in Sassoon a revulsion against his homosexuality, appears to be the most obvious example of this. However, ultimately, Sassoon found it impossible to establish a lasting romance with Tennant, in the face of Tennant's narcissism, selfishness and outrageous eccentricity.

Egremont writes with the kind of chronological precision that can become monotonous, though his authoritative progress through Sassoon's life is unlikely ever to be bettered. He is especially effective in demonstrating the extent to which Sassoon's version of the First World War, encapsulated in poems like "The General" - of an unimaginative, incompetent High Command presiding over an avoidable slaughter - has become the presiding perception of the war. Revisionists can shout as loudly as they like, but the news recently that a large number of reading groups have nominated Sassoon's war poems as their favourite poetry anthology suggests that those who wish to counter the continuation of this myth will have their work cut out for them.