Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) is best known as one of those officers and gentlemen who served in the trenches in World War I and emerged as an antiwar poet, like the better-known Wilfred Owen (killed just before the Armistice). He published sixteen books of poetry, but I think he is more likely to be remembered over the long haul for his semi-fictional autobiography, Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man (1928). That requires some explanation. He wrote a trilogy - the fox-hunting volume as well as Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and Sherston's Progress - about a character named George Sherston, but when he later wrote his autobiography, also a trilogy, it was seen that the fiction closely followed his life. It seems most sensible (and illuminating) to treat the fox-hunting volume - the best of the lot - as fiction, as Sassoon intended.
This is the opening:
My childhood was a queer and not altogether happy one. Circumstances conspired to make me shy and solitary. My father and mother died before I was capable of remembering them. I was an only child, entrusted to the care of an unmarried aunt who lived quietly in the country.
The rest of the paragraph briefly describes the aunt's sedentary life. Then we quickly move to Mr. Star, George's tutor, and Tom Dixon the groom, the most important character in the boy's life who, not many pages later, induces Aunt Evelyn to buy a pony for George, and who steers him toward fox-hunting. At the end of the fourth paragraph the narrator describes his relationship with Dixon, thereby also describing genteel society in pre-war England, with its marked social distinctions.
But it was Dixon who taught me to ride, and my admiration for him was unqualified. And since he was what I afterwards learned to call "a perfect gentleman's servant," he never allowed me to forget my position as "a little gentlemen": he always knew exactly when to become discreetly respectful. In fact, he "knew his place."
Consider how far we've gone in just two pages: George's circumstances have been defined and the principal actors in his life have been introduced and incisively described, and it has all been done with an easy grace that is scintillating, alerting, and interesting the reader. Probably because of his experience as a poet, Sassoon's style might be called essential; there is nothing superfluous, nothing irrelevant, and while the narrative moves swiftly, we never feel that it's inadequate. This is a writer who chooses words very carefully, so as to be quietly very effective.
The plot seems simple, but it required clever management on the author's part. Let me briefly describe the first movement, as it were: seven pages from the opening sentence, George gets a pony at age nine; eleven pages and three years later he goes with Dixon to his first hunt. That takes up nine pages, and five pages later he goes to his second hunt, described in four pages. The next chapter opens with his return from boarding school for the summer vacation, going on to describe his triumph in a local cricket match. The transition from winter fox-hunting to summer cricket, with an unremarked hiatus of intervening years is startling at first, but we are soon caught up in George's world. Earlier, Sassoon is frank about his interest and procedure:
Since the continuity of these memoirs is to depend solely on my experiences as a sportsman, I need not waste many words on the winter, spring, summer, and autumn that chronologically followed the last episode. . . .
The next chapter opens with another return of George, now twenty-two, this time from Cambridge, which he has quit in disgust, and again he is involved in cricket. In October, Dixon induces him to buy a hunter, a horse intended for the fox-hunting (he has owned only ponies before), and George begins his real involvement with fox-hunting. The chapter is called "A Fresh Start" and so it is, but the most remarkable aspect of the author's management of the narrative is that the book has been so imbued with the aura of fox-hunting, and we have been so focused on the boy's physical prowess (as in cricket), that it takes an effort of thought to realize that a decade has passed since his last hunt (only his second), and in the intervening years we have been in his company for only six or seven months! Sassoon's writing is masterly in creating the illusion.
I need not go into detail about the rest of the book. In the next six chapters the interest in maintained by having George go to different hunts where he encounters new landscapes and new people, improves his horsemanship enough to win two point to point races, but is nearly as diffident as ever:
I was quite sure that I should make a fool of myself. . . . As I remember and write, I grin, but not unkindly, at my distant and callow self and the absurdities which constitute this chronicle.
Throughout, we are impressed and charmed by George's openness to experience, by his freshness of perception:
As the service proceeded I glanced furtively around me at the prudent Sunday-like faces of the congregation
. . . .
My memory of that summer returns like a bee that comes buzzing into a quiet room where the curtains are drawn on a blazing hot afternoon.
. . . .
[Riding past an old Queen Anne house] "I am riding past the past," I think, never dreaming that I shall one day write that moment down on paper; never dreaming that I shall be clarifying and condensing that chronicle of simple things through which I blundered so diffidently.
Appropriately, the climax of George's fox-hunting experience is his companionship with the Master of a first class hunt in the Midlands in the winter of 1913-14, just a few months before war breaks out. The last two chapters, "In the Army" and "At the Front," inaugurate a new phase of George's experience and definitively end his fox-hunting career. The severing of his ties to that world - and that's the way he thinks of it:
I thought of [it] as the only one worth belonging to. And it was (though a limited one) a clearly defined world. . . .
- is done very adroitly and tellingly. "In The Army" finds George in a cavalry outfit with links to his past because he knows many of the officers from fox-hunting. His horse, requisitioned by the army, is part of the outfit. But he soon manages to shift to a more businesslike unit where he goes to Officer Training, and finally, the front. As he says:
The Yeomanry would have been more comfortable for me if none of the officers had known me before I joined. I now felt strongly in favor of getting right away from my old associations.
Then he learns that a close friend from his hunting days has been killed, and finally Dixon, who had enlisted in the Veterinary Corps, dies of pneumonia. His old fox-hunting world is definitely dead. On leave, George meets an old country friend:
. . . we'd talked about Dixon, who had been such an old friend of his. "Ay; Tom was a good chap; I've never known a better. . . ." He had said good-bye and good-night and set his horse going again. As he turned the corner the past had seemed to go with him.
I chose this book to discuss not only because I think it's a wonderful read, but because I want to point a lesson: too often, in elucidating a book's contents, we ignore the way the contents are presented. I have complained more than once about conservatives praising badly written books because they like the message, pointing out that the message cannot be separated from the medium and that a lousy book does not expand your horizons but narrows them. Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man has no message beyond itself; its content would seem to have little interest for any Review reader. What do you or I care about fox-hunting or the genteel life in prewar England? My point is that Sassoon makes you interested in those subjects because the book is brilliantly conceived, arranged, and written, and his style is precise, elegant, and deeply perceptive. I've quoted a lot in this essay, but here's more to make my point:
The umpires are in their places. But it is in the sunshine of my own clarified retrospection that they are wearing their white coats. While I was describing them I had forgotten that they have both of them been dead for many years.
. . . .
Such was the impermanent fabric as it unfolded: memory enchants even the dilatory little train journey which carried my expectant simplicity into the freshness of a country seen for the first time. All the sanguine guesswork of youth is there, and the silliness; all the novelty of being alive and impressed by the urgency of tremendous trivialities.
I want my readers to be sensitive to such writing, and to realize that a book can be read just for the sheer pleasure of the words and how they are put together to create a character and a world.
In the next issue: Robinson Crusoe. *