Category: Biographical

When Siegfried met Hester

By , December 18, 2010 1:30 pm

From his diaries and letters it is clear when Siegfried Sassoon met Miss Hester Gatty on 5 September 1933 that he fell deeply in love with her. By 18 December they were married; hence today’s post.

The Sassoon collection contains a significant bundle of love letters sent by Sassoon to his intended.  His declarations of love to her are bold and revealing:

- MS Add.9852/12/1/3/13, 9 October 1933:

“…no one in the world matters to me now, no one except Hester.”
“I have first calculated that to go through all the poetry I want to share with you it will take exactly 999 years and there will be more time needed for music.”

- MS Add.9852/12/1/3/17, undated, perhaps 16 October:

“I believe that my whole life has been a preparation for the moment when I met you & know, in my soul, that we were made for one another. You, the first woman I have ever loved. There will be no memories, Hester, when you are mine, only the memories of years of frustration which you will make me forget.”

- MS Add.9852/12/1/3/21, 25 October 1933:

“You are my life, my love, & my soul’s redemption, & the end of all my vigils.”

1930-2 had been painful years for Sassoon but the summer of 1933 brought the wind of change; the final end of his distressing relationship with the aesthete Stephen Tennant; a delightful new friendship in the person of bibliophile and surgeon Geoffrey Keynes; and elation in the easy, yet animated, company of Hester.

Sassoon’s social life and literary commitments regularly took him away from home, both from Fitz House before his marriage and from Heytesbury after, but this did not prevent frequent communication with his beloved. A bundle of love letters catalogued as MS Add.9852/12/1/3 contains three letters all written to Hester on 21 May 1936. Sassoon wrote to her so many times on that day he did not date his letters; rather he puts the day and time: “Wednesday 5.30″, “Wedy – 7-15″, “Wednesday night (terribly late)”. In fact it is only because Hester did not discard the envelopes (and hence the post marks) that we are able to date the letters precisely at all.

The letters are not short and, although much of the hand writing is not his usual compact script, he has squeezed many lines onto each sheet. It is impossible to be certain if the looser writing indicates excitement or a need to write at speed. In the three letters of 21 May he entirely filled five and a half sides of paper 5¼” x 7″ to her. One wonders how long this lover’s feat may have taken him. Perhaps in our own era he might have been a regular emailer and texter? The Daily Mail reported this October that the average couple sends 3 texts and 1 email to each other per day while 1 in 10 couples spend more time communicating in text than talking: Daily Mail Article.

Time Out in the Archives

By , December 10, 2010 12:12 pm

On 28 January 1920 Siegfried Sassoon arrived by the Dutch liner Rotterdam into New York having been persuaded by lecture agent James B. Pond to deliver a lecture tour. On the 2 February Sassoon discovered that Pond had telegrammed to cancel the tour but had been thwarted by Sassoon taking an earlier ship than anticipated. The lecture tour circuit was suffering from ”English poet” saturation and only two lectures had been secured in February. Sassoon decided to remain in the U.S. and took on the onerous task of making speaking engagements himself. This was a troubled time for him for he did not feel he was a natural public speaker and he took his audience’s lack of basic factual knowledge about the war badly. His journal covering the tour period indicates he was deeply uncomfortable with the ”obscene publicity” and felt after reading his poetry to audiences ”as if my soul had been undressed in public”.
Pope's Essay on Man, manuscript
Pope’s manuscript draft of his Essay on Man

Amid a chaos of travelling, speaking and dining with the great and the good he discovered a pleasing oasis of calm in the Pierpont Morgan Library, and found too a good friend in Librarian Miss Belle Greene. Here was an ”escape from the flurry and precipitancy of over engaged days”. In ”the little manuscript room … a sound-poof sanctuary” he saw Hardy and Keats manuscripts; and handled Alexander Pope’s draft of his poem An Essay on Man. The experience brought tears to his eyes.

The image of MS 348 in this blog post is used courtesy of the the Pierpont Morgan Library. Click on the image for a zoomable version of the document. Quotations are from MS.Add.9852/1/14 and Siegfried’s Journey (page 184-5).

On George Sassoon’s bithday

By , October 30, 2010 9:30 am

I noticed today that 30 October was the day of the year on which George, Siegfried Sassoon’s only child, was born in 1936. So, in the spirit commemoration, I have just been down to the stacks to take a look at items in the collection which originate from the period to see what light they throw on this period of Sassoon’s life.
There is quite a variety of material but what really caught my eye was a volume of preparatory notes (MS Add.9852/7/1/3) which were eventually worked up to become ‘The Old Century’. The quarto volume is cloth covered and Sassoon has decorated the front with one his characteristic harlequin patterns of coloured blocks and shapes. He has ruled a wide margin left side of each page filling the right with dense draft notes over which there are many scorings out and annotations. Conveniently for us, Sassoon has recorded the dates on which he compiled these notes. He begun on 16 March 1936. The timing is interesting; perhaps this sudden focus on childhood recollections was spurred by the realisation that Hester’s much longed for pregnancy had become established? Sassoon continued to make these notes up until 9 July and then did not resume them until 22 December 1936. The three month break in his prose work seems to correspond to a number of things: a transfer of attention to poetry writing including ‘A Message for our Time’; the removal of the couple from Heytesbury to London to put Hester under the care of the best metropolitan doctors; and a settling down period after the arrival of George.
I ran across another delightful letter of 25 June 1938 (MS Add.9852/12/1/3) from Sassoon to Hester who was away with George at Bodenham, Wiltshire. In the centre of a paragraph about replacing George’s nanny with a more suitable candidate (defined as being one without knowledge of the works of D.H. Lawrence) there is a tiny, curious ink sketch. It depicts a woman pushing a pram from which two arms, a leg and the face of a bad tempered infant project at all angles!

Sassoon and birth

By , September 7, 2010 3:27 pm

Hard of the heels of the anniversary of Sassoon’s death comes the 124th anniversary of his birth. He was born on 8 September 1886 in at the family home in Weirleigh, Kent.

Although there are some family items in the new acquisition there does not at this stage appear to be anything directly related to Sassoon’s birth. Sassoon’s diaries are patchy at the time of his own son’s birth, perhaps owing to anxiety about the health of his wife Hester following an earlier miscarriage. However here is part of the first entry in a new diary begun by Sassoon on 12 December 1936 when George would have been just six weeks old:

And George, of course, is a thought which satisfies my whole being. I love him so much already, & long for the time when I can converse with him – watching myself as a child again – for he is exactly like me.
MS Add.9852/1/39

George Thornycroft Sassoon was to remain Sassoon and Hester’s only child.

Sassoon and death

By , September 1, 2010 3:45 pm

As a brief nod to the anniversary of Sassoon’s demise (he died at home in Heytesbury on 1 September 1967) I should like to draw your attention to three resources that throw light on how Sassoon thought about death at two very different points in his life.

In July 1916 Sassoon was involved in the bloody battle of the Somme and fully expected to die. An item in the new accession shows an extraordinary sketch of monument he wanted erected to him on Market Hill, Cambridge. There is an image of the sketch on the exhibtion webpages at:
http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/exhibitions/Sassoon/Somme.html

Sassoon, of course, survived the war. His demise was a slow one; a decline in his health was noticeable from the age of 74 and he died from stomach cancer just before what would have been his 81st birthday. Sassoon had converted to Roman Catholicism as a direct result of a correspondence with Revd Mother Margaret Mary McFarlin and his faith brought him much comfort in his final years. A brief catalogue to the correspondence can be viewed at:
http://archiveshub.ac.uk/search/record.html?recid=gb012ms.add.7935

The importance of Catholicism in the last years of Sassoon’s life is also demonstrated by an item from the Cambridge University Library’s Keynes collection. It is a collection of four poems composed in 1962 and 1964 entitled Ave, Atque Vale (Hail and farewell). The poems were produced posthumously as a small, fine pamphlet by the Stanbrook Abbey Press. The catalogue record is at:
http://hooke.lib.cam.ac.uk/cgi-bin/bib_seek.cgi?cat=ul&bib=2457650

The sketch and copy of Ave, Atque Vale may currently be viewed by anyone who is able to visit the free Dream Voices exhibition (open until 23 December 2010).
The letters can be consulted by anyone with a Cambridge University Library reader’s card validated for the Manuscripts Reading Room. Information on how to apply for reader status is online on the Library’s Admissions pages.