Harold George Nicolson

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Harold George Nicolson

Sir Harold George Nicolson (1886-1968) was a British diplomat, historian, biographer, critic and journalist, and diarist of note.

Harold Nicolson was born in Tehran, Persia (now Iran), on November 21, 1886, where his father was British charge d'affaires. His father eventually became the first Lord Carnock, and as a child Harold visited the estates of his uncle in Ireland, Lord Dufferin. Harold was an aristocrat through and through.

His early life was spent in diplomatic posts with his father—the Balkans, the Middle East, Morocco, Madrid, and St. Petersburg (Leningrad). He went into the diplomatic service himself, quite naturally, in 1909, after going to Balliol College, Oxford. On leave from his diplomatic post in Constantinople he married Vita Sackville-West in 1913 in the chapel at Knole, Kent. She was the daughter of Lord Sackville, and in his house at Knole there were 365 rooms: it had been a 16th-century present from Queen Elizabeth I to Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset.

In 1915 the young couple bought Long Barn, a medieval cottage near Knole, where they lived for 15 years. Vita was a poet, novelist, and gardener. Afterwards they lived in Sissinghurst Castle, also in Kent. Their friends were aristocrats, diplomats, and literary notables, among whom was Virginia Woolf, the famous stream-of-consciousness novelist. Vita was in love with Virginia, as she was in love with several other women in her life. Harold was a homosexual too, and they also loved each other. Vita and Harold had two sons, one of whom has written a book about their marriage: Nigel Nicolson, Portrait of a Marriage (1973), which depicts his parents as loving each other until the day they died.

As a diplomat, Nicolson was at the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I, and in the 1920s he served in the Middle East and Berlin. He resigned in 1929 to be near his wife and to write. His first book was Paul Verlaine (1921), which was the first of six literary biographies: Tennyson (1923), Byron: The Last Journey (1924), Swinburne (1926), Benjamin Constant (1949), and Sainte-Beuve (1957). He also published a brace of novels—Sweet Waters (1921) and Public Faces (1932); essays—Some People (1927), The English Sense of Humor (1947), Good Behaviour (1955), Journey to Java (1957), The Age of Reason (1960), and Monarchy (1962); some more biographies— Curzon, the Last Phase (1934), Dwight Morrow (1935), and Helen's Tower (1937); and some historical works, among which were Peacemaking, 1919 (1933), Diplomacy (1939), and the distinguished The Congress of Vienna (1946) and The Evolution of Diplomatic Method (1954).

And he had time for his Diaries. They were published by his son Nigel, in three volumes, in 1966-1968. He was said to have never written a boring line. On reaching 50 he commented: "I am still very promising, and shall continue to be so until the day of my death" (which came 32 years later!).

In politics, he was a member of Parliament for the National Labour Party for West Leicester from 1935 to 1945. He was intensely opposed to Munich—the Munich Pact of 1938, signed by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and dictated by Hitler, for German subjugation of the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. He was committed, with Winston Churchill, in opposition to all dictators.

But he was not much of a "Labour man." After the war he failed in the election of 1945 as a National Labour Party candidate; he tried again in 1948 in a by-election at North Croydon, this time as a Labour Party contestant. He was unsuccessful. In his own words, he was a "cerebral socialist." He could not sympathize with the point of view of his mainly working-class constituents; they were too far from his own class, socially and intellectually. He was so civilized and so cultured that he seemed the last "gentleman" in politics.

He observed in 1948: "How difficult the proletariat are! … They destroy the grass, and there were little ragomuffins sailing cigarette cartons on the two pools. Yes, I fear my socialism is purely cerebral; I do not like the masses in the flesh."

Nicolson's suspicion of the working-classes was paralleled by his snobbishness about Jews, Arabs, Blacks, and Americans. He shared these prejudices with his wife. He knew these feelings were not worthy of him, but he could not seem to do anything about them. For instance, in the first three months of 1933 he and his wife were on a lecture-tour of the United States. Vita said: "with all their kindnesses, these people have very little imagination."

Of all the works Nicolson wrote, the history and diplomacy books stand out, and the Diaries. He died at Sissinghurst Castle on May 1, 1968, six years after his wife, never having recovered from her death.

Further Reading

Sources of additional information include Nigel Nicolson, Portrait of a Marriage (1973); Michael Stevens, V. Sackville-West (1973); Sir Harold Nicolson, Diaries and Letters, 1930-1962 (3 vols., edited by Nigel Nicolson, 1966-1968); and Newsweek 72 (July 15, 1968).

Additional Sources

Lees-Milne, James., Harold Nicolson: a biography, Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1982, 1980-1984. □