Thackeray defined snobbery as “to meanly admire mean things”. Another definition might be a judgment made by arbitrary standards, for example extrapolating moral worth from social position. From this vantage point, James Lees-Milne (1908-97) was certainly a snob. He genuinely did believe that his chum the Duchess of Devonshire was a better person by dint of her strawberry leaves, or rather – a qualification worth making – that the condition of being a Duke’s wife brought to the surface various qualities in her that would otherwise have lain dormant.
Any neutral reader of the 12 volumes of diaries that brought Lees-Milne his considerable cachet will eventually roll up against this barrier. He can be notably sharp-eyed, he is no respecter of reputations, he has a bat’s ear for idiosyncrasy, he is capable of profound and unfeigned emotion, but always there comes a time when the less socially exalted among us will want to yell out: “I live in a semi-detached house!” or “It’s not our fault we never went to Eton!” Not the least of Michael Bloch’s merits as a biographer, consequently, is his ability to sniff out one or two of the insecurities of his subject’s apparently impregnable position and to show the effect they had on what might be called his imaginative life.
By his own admission, Lees-Milne was a late developer. Though coaxed through all the right hoops (Eton, Magdalen College, Oxford) it was not until his early thirties, as an employee of the nascent National Trust, that he found his metier. The war-time trips around moth-eaten country houses and the negotiations with their (in some cases) equally moth-eaten owners, have since become legendary. The widely-held impression of the fledgling NT as a kind of gentlemanly racket, full of well-placed chums doing each other favours, is not one Bloch cares to dispute. In any case, any lefty critic of these arrangements would have to ask who else but Lees-Milne and his friends had sufficient expertise to do the work.
As a biography, James Lees-Milne: A Life ploughs more or less a single furrow, which is to say that, by and large, it follows the diaries. When these fall silent, as in the long postwar sojourn in the South of France, then Bloch’s treatment turns a touch thin. Still, when it is funny it is very funny indeed. Vita Sackville-West’s verses to Alvilde (“Suspender-belts do drop around my waist/ And as they stretch elastic so/ Does my love elastically grow…”) deserve to be anthologised. Or there is Jim in 1973 helping his friend Diana Westmorland with a cross letter to the president of the National Union of Mineworkers: “The Dowager Countess of Westmorland presents her compliments to Mr Gormley and begs to inform him that he is a shit.”
They don’t make them like that any more, which may or may not be a good thing.