Category: Commentary

Dear Mr Sassoon… letters catalogue published

By , May 24, 2011 2:10 pm

Blog readers may recall that in August of last year I posted about the publication of a catalogue to a collection we call MS Add.8889. I am now pleased to publicise the publication of another online list to a similar, but rather larger, collection of Sassoon’s correspondence on the same catalogue website:
Link to the catalogue of MS Add.9375 on the Janus website

Again the content and authors of the letters are wide ranging, however this set does includes quite a number of items that might be termed ‘fan mail’. It is of various kinds: MS Add.9375/812-3 are from from a teenage school girl; MS Add.9375/772 is an example of  contact from an old soldier spurred by a description of shared experience; and MS Add.9375/328 is one of many instances of old friends noting their appreciation of his latest work.

A nice feature of loading catalogues onto the Janus site is that readers can then use its powerful search facility to find related items across different collections. This image is a screen shot of a search for ‘Bonham-Carter’ showing that various members of family were corresponding with him and, as references occur in both MS Add.8889 and Ms Add.9375, that he can not have been keeping the correspondence in anything like a consistent way:

Click image to open Bonham-Carter search

The facility can also be used in quite a sophisticated way to look for particular subjects such as this search looking for information about the translation of Sassoon’s work:

Click image to open translation search

Anyone with a Cambridge University Library reader’s card validated for the Manuscripts Reading Room may consult the letters. Information on how to apply for reader status is online on the Library’s Admissions pages.

Sassoon on Valentine’s Day

By , February 14, 2011 2:15 pm

I am currently in the process of foliating Siegfried Sassoon’s journals. By ‘foliating’ I mean I am writing a running number on the top right corner of every two facing pages in each volume. This, as you might well imagine, is a time consuming process but we consider it worthwhile for a number of reasons: the improvement of document security; the ease of providing precise references for quotations; and allowing accurate recoding of the original location of loose enclosures. I am removing the enclosures to be stored unfolded in separate files.

It occurred to me, after reading my colleague Megan’s interesting posting on Valentine’s cards on the Tower Project Blog, to wonder what Sassoon thought of such items. I present below outlines of Sassoon’s journal entries for 14 February during his love affair with the aesthete Stephen Tennant. Whilst I did not find a clear answer to my question what I did find is never-the-less I think of interest:

MS Add.9852/1/27
Entry for 15 February 1928
Sassoon was in the process of writing A Fox Hunting Man. Tennant, with whom he had begun a clandestine love affair in the previous summer, had gone to the Continent. Sassoon received a cable from his more openly acknowledged lover Glen Byam Shaw (who was away working in New York). William Walton visit him and Sassoon paid him £20 to help Walton travel to be with Tennant. He also entreated him to explain to Tennant that he would not be joining them unless began to suffer writer’s block with work on his book. Sassoon was pleased with his writing progress and had been noting how many words a day he was writing. He went to a classical concert on the night of 14 and makes no mention of Valentine’s sent or received.

MS Add.9852/1/28
Entries on and around 14 February 1929
Sassoon was in London and was socialising with Glen Byam Shaw who had returned from America with a new lover of his own, Angela Baddeley. Sassoon was basking in the news of winning a literary prize. On the 14 itself he dined with Glen Byam Shaw at the Ken[sington] Hotel and they talked until late. No mention is made of Tennant or St Valentine, although elsewhere Sassoon admits his infatuation for Tennant.

MS Add.9852/1/30
11 & 17 February 1930
Sassoon was away in Sicily with Tennant but Sassoon had been unwell and was in bed for over a week. He was however still working (writing). Tennant, who by now, was under a course of treatment for consumption (tuberculosis) had been collecting shells and Sassoon talks romantically of him but does not mention St Valentine’s day.

MS Add.9852/1/31
14 February 1931
By this date Tennant had become very ill and reclusive and although Sassoon felt badly treated by Tennant’s rejection he was not yet willing to ‘condemn’ their relationship. On the night of the 13 Sassoon was staying overnight at a hotel near Tennant’s home, Wilsford. On the morning of the 14 Sassoon went to Wilsford without phoning ahead and disturbed Tennant by standing at his window and looking in on him in his sick bed. Tennant’s light mood angered Sassoon and he parted from him sullenly and felt guilty for the rest of the day. He described his subsequent early spring drive from Wiltshire to Kent delightfully but ended it with a whistful remark about St Valentine’s day. He was so out of sorts by the time he reached his mother’s home that he could not even bring himself to tell her about his newly purchased horse.

MS Add.9852/1/35
13 & 14 February 1932
Sassoon took a house (Fitz House) close to Tennant’s home at Wilsford. The journal for this period contains reams of introspective diary entries as Tennant who was often still unwell was refusing to see visitors because of his consumptive appearance. On the night of the 13 Sassoon agonised about whether to send him a Valentine’s greeting as he craved Tennant’s attention but did not wish to condone his behaviour. The following day he was curiously reassured when the Hunter sisters (gardeners at Wilsford) came to tell Sassoon that a chimney fire in Tennant’s room had allowed his nurse to insist they remove him to his library and spring clean his room.

MS Add.9852/1/36
Retrospective entries from 19 February 1933
Although relations between Sassoon and Tennant had improved by 1933 Sassoon spent the 14 riding out alone and working on the writing of Sherstone. On the 15 he called on Tennant but makes little of it being rather preoccupied by motoring accident with a bus.

It seems, admittedly on rather sparse evidence, that Valentine’s day seemed to mean the most to Sassoon in the years when his relationship was at its lowest ebb. It would be a most interesting exercise to extend this Valentine’s search across the full journal series.

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 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:

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:

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:

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.

The sensual perception of a poem

By , June 1, 2010 1:00 pm

In his autobiographical work Siegfried’s Journey Sassoon makes an interesting observation when describing his slowness in appreciating the ‘exceptional quality of [Wilfred Owen’s] poetic gift’. ‘Manuscript poems’, he writes, ‘can be deceptive when handed to one like school exercises to be blue pencilled, especially when one has played thirty-six holes of golf and consumed a stodgy hospital dinner’ (page 59). It seems that Sassoon was deeply aware of the aesthetics of his work in both manuscript and published form. From childhood onwards many of his manuscript poems are to be found accompanied by his own diligently laid out watercolour decorations, and his attention to correcting printers’ proofs appear to show a concern for the visual impact of the printed word on the page. Is this perhaps an influence of his maternal Thornycroft artistic lineage?