Christopher and His Kind: A new biography of Christopher Sclater Millard

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Maria Roberts, ‘Yours Loyally’: A Life of Christopher Sclater Millard, (Feed-A-Read, 2014), pp. 304

In 1914 on the eve of war, Christopher Sclater Millard published his complete bibliography of Wilde’s published works. At over 600 pages, the volumes marked the culmination of over ten years research and contained a staggering wealth of information about Wilde’s literary production and is a testament to Millard’s dedication to the task and personal enthusiasm for the subject. Robert Baldwin Ross, Wilde’s literary executor called it ‘an astonishing and ingenious compilation’ while his friend and lover C.K. Scott Moncrieff described it as ‘the first good bibliography, and still the best in our language’. Millard himself thought it ‘the only thing I am likely to be remembered by to my merit!’

Exactly a hundred years to the month, Maria Roberts has published a new biography of Millard. The first was a fragmentary study by the late H. Montgomery Hyde, which brought together much new information  but did not attempt to weave it into a cohesive narrative as Roberts has done. However any aficionado of the art of bibliography or the Wildean cultural milieu may be disappointed with this book. For it is not a scholarly enquiry into the cultural production of Wildeana, nor does it have anything new to say about Wilde’s circle. Instead it is something far more interesting: an attempt to reconstruct the life of a remarkable and original individual, an openly and unashamedly gay man living in a society which criminalized all sexual acts between men, for whom the rehabilitation of Wilde’s genius was not merely a personal enthusiasm but a form of political activism.

Michael Davidson, Christopher Millard’s ‘young man’ at the the time of his death at just 54, later suggested that Millard’s claim to greatness lay not in his literary accomplishments, but in his personality. Meeting him was, Davidson recalled, ‘like climbing up Olympus and having drinks with one of the nicer gods’. It is Christopher Millard, the man, who is the subject of Roberts’ book.

Yet despite Roberts’ best efforts, Millard remains an enigma. Born in 1872, he was just 22 when Oscar Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labour. At the time he was a student of theology at Salisbury where he was training for the ministry, and Roberts believes he was already in a relationship with another man. Yet while the scandal had a largely disciplinary effect on many gay men (Edward Carpenter, who Millard admired, declared that ‘The Wilde trial had done its work and silence must henceforth reign on sex subjects’), Christopher was moved to write to Reynolds Newspaper to defend Wilde and descry his treatment by the press. ‘Because a fellow creature has fallen’, he wrote, ‘why should they cast stones at him? Are the writers of such articles themselves immaculate in their passions?’

The shadow of the Wilde trials hangs ominously over Roberts’ narrative. Though he had admired Wilde’s poems and plays beforehand, Wilde’s prosecution had a profound affect on Millard. From this time he appears to have been consumed by his interest, obsessively collecting anything to do with Wilde, including thousands of  newspaper clippings, reviews and caricatures which he compiled in scrapbooks now preserved in the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. In 1904 he left his post as Headmaster of a small private Catholic school to devote himself to the considerable task of compiling an authoritative bibliography of Wilde’s published works.

But in the summer of 1906, Millard suffered the same fate as Wilde. He was arrested following a drunken and ill-judged pass at a young man called Thomas Bradbury, and sentenced to three months hard labour in Oxford Prison. Yet unlike Wilde, Millard did not (to his family’s chagrin) leave England to begin a new life on the Continent, instead staying on to contend with the prejudice and persecution which his conviction left him open to. One of the most interesting chapters in Roberts’ book draws on the police reports collected on Millard by Scotland Yard in 1914-15. Millard was placed under surveillance following his involvement with Charles Nehemiah Garratt, a seventeen year old suffragist and prostitute, who was for a time his lover. Roberts’ use of the PRO documents follows the work of Matt Houlbrook in reconstructing the homosexual subculture in which Millard moved, and which in 1916, led to a second warrant being issued for his arrest.

Remarkably, Millard refused to be cowed either by his imprisonments or the opprobrium with which he was treated by polite society. He was in fact entirely open about his ‘rows’, as he called them, ‘regarding them as accidents which having happened, no honest man would want to conceal’, and  ‘out and proud’ more half a century before Stonewall. When in 1920 he was employed by Vyvyan Holland to edit an edition of Wilde’s letters to Ross, Millard defied Holland’s instructions that all homosexual material should be removed. ‘It was very wrong of you to put the Uranian passages in after my very careful deletions’, wrote Holland. ‘But I forgive you, knowing how earnest you are in your devotion to the subject… I won’t have the letters used as Uranian propaganda’.

Roberts’ writes with an empathy and enthusiasm for her subject which nonetheless does not spill over into panegyric. The inevitably low production values of print-on-demand publishing do not do justice to her careful and detailed reconstruction of Millard’s life and milieu. This book is recommended reading, not merely for devotees of Wildeana, but anyone interested in the history of sexuality and the social and cultural aftermath of the Wilde trials.

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On re-reading Whitman

Dear man!

Those birds remembered first to sing

That saw together you and me and Spring;

And I was happiest

(CKSM, May 1909)

And when I thought how my dear friend my lover was

on his way coming, O then I was happy…

And that night while all was still I heard the waters roll

slowly continually up the shores…

For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same

cover in the cool night,

In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was

inclined towards me,

And his arm lay lightly around my breast – and that night

I was happy.

(Walt Whitman, 1860)

Could it be?

Oblivion’s fugitive no more: A life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff

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Jean Findlay, Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy and Translator. Chatto and Windus, London, 2014, pp.351

What would C.K. Scott Moncrieff, a notoriously caustic reviewer in his day, make of his great-great niece’s biography? He would no doubt be delighted that this project had been undertaken by one of the descendants of the family he worked so hard to provide for, and touched by the obvious admiration and sincere affection with which Findlay weaves her narrative. This is an accomplished and compassionate biography which finally gives shape to the eventful life of a man who has until now been merely a footnote in the biographies of others. Her achievement is all the more notable since, as her introduction hints (p.3), it was researched and written at the same time as raising young children.

The biography is unashamed in its sympathy with Charles. This is a very different portrait of Scott Moncrieff to that glimpsed in published accounts elsewhere. Indeed until now, the picture of CKSM encountered by readers of literary biography has been largely based on the opinions of those he alienated: Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, DH Lawrence, the Sitwells. Thus in Dominic Hibberd’s works on Wilfred Owen he emerges as a vaguely sinister, predatory homosexual, while David Leavitt’s Florence: a Delicate Case takes its cue from bookseller Pino Orioli’s memoir, portraying him as unloveably quarrelsome and a religious fanatic. Neither depiction bears much resemblance to the Charles lovingly reconstructed by Findlay. Her Charles is a man of honour: loyal, kind and unstintingly generous to friends and family. This is not to say that he is one-dimensional. Charles’ letters to Vyvyan Holland, the younger son of Oscar Wilde, provide much colour and help dilute the image of an overly earnest man of letters, dutiful son and brother and pious Catholic, gleaned from extant correspondence with literary acquaintances and family members.

However the book is not without its flaws, one of which is a sloppiness with chronology, and in particular, ages. For instance, on one page Christopher Millard is ‘ten years Charles’ senior’ (p.50) but later ‘36 when he met the 16 year old Charles’ (in fact he was 17 years his senior and Charles was almost certainly already 17). At another point a portrait of Charles painted in 1919 is described as being painted in 1922. These errors are not so much Findlay’s fault as her editors. But elsewhere Findlay gets her facts plainly wrong. Millard was not living at Abercorn Place in 1906. He did not live there until 1919. In the spring of 1907 he was staying at his brother’s vicarage in Forest Gate. Similarly, Robbie Ross did not move into 40 Half Moon St until during the war. Puzzlingly these facts are all given in books which Findlay herself lists at the back of her book. Neither was Bonar Law’s son, also called Charles, at school with CKSM, since he went to Eton and only qualified for active service in 1916. This information is freely available from google. But to point out such inaccuracies is mere pedantry.

More frustrating are those sections where Findlay appears to overlook the available literary evidence on which her interpretation of Charles’ personal life relies. Charles might be dismayed to read that he was, by 1918, simply too physically repulsive to seduce Wilfred Owen. Findlay is insistent that there was no sexual relationship between them, despite the many clues in Charles’ love sonnets to the young poet. Is a man who will sexily pun on ‘putting one’s nephew into a tube’ really likely to be oblivious to the innuendo in ‘my night’s swallowing thee’? (p.148) Findlay is naturally keen to absolve Charles of what Robert Graves made sound like date rape (p. 319), but her claim that the ‘conservative and law abiding Owen’ would not have welcomed any sexual advance sounds vaguely fanciful. Until, that is, Findlay acknowledges her indebtedness to Jon Stallworthy, who has been carrying on a proxy war to ‘degay’ Owen since Hibberd’s death in 2012.

At the same time Findlay gives disproportionate precedence to the friendship above other far more permanent and important relationships. She writes that Owen’s death ‘left a crater in Charles’ life’ (p. 162) and describes his dedicatory poem to Owen in the Song of Roland as embodying ‘the sort of sentiment a man would write on his wife’s tombstone’ (p.161). Fair enough, until one reads Charles’ dedication to Philip Bainbrigge, his ‘closest friend’ since 1910, which he himself gave precedence over his sonnet to Owen:

 Mind of my intimate mind, I may claim thee lover:

Thoughts of thy mind blown fresh from the void I gather;

Half of my limbs, head, heart, in thy grave I cover:

I who, the soldier first, had at first designed thee

Heir, now health, strength, life itself would I give thee.

More than all that has journeyed hither to find thee,

Half a life from the wreckage saved to survive thee.

On the strength of this poem I would suggest that if anyone had a claim to being Charles’ ‘wife’ it was Bainbrigge, though the sonnet dedicated to Owen admittedly establishes him as the ‘master-mistress’ of his passion.

None of this is to deny Findlay’s achievement in rescuing her great-great uncle from obscurity, and it is to be hoped that her book will acquaint a new readership with the enigma of Scott Moncrieff and provide a fitting accompaniment to the current revived interest in his translation as we approach its centenary.

Captain Robert Gibson

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After about ten minutes (thank you University of Glasgow archives)  I’ve identified the ‘Gibson’ in CKSM’s war letters from 1st Ypres as Captain Robert Gibson. He was apparently a Captain in the 3rd, but attached to the 2nd Battalion of the KIng’s Own Scottish Borderers. The University of Glasgow, where Gibson studied Law and Chemistry, before winning an exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford, has posted this photograph and a short biography at http://www.universitystory.gla.ac.uk/ww1-biography/?id=219. This gives his birth date as 1891, but the CWGC gives his age at death as 26, making him born in 1888 or early 1889.

Gibson was killed during the German assault on Hill 60 on 5 May 1915. It seems likely that he is the unnamed comrade in CKSM’s poem ‘Domum’, written at St Eloi a month later:

What was it you fought for, whose profit that you died?
Here is Ypres burning and twenty towns beside,
Where is the gain in all our pain when he we loved but now
Is lying still on Sixty Hill, a bullet through his brow?

“He died one thing regarding that is better worth
Than the golden cities of all the kings on earth.
Were right and wrong to choose among, he had seen the right,
Had found the thing appointed and done it with his might.”

 

Goodbye to Old Hat

I’m finally up to writing about the war, which lies at the heart of my novel. But how does one go about writing something believable set during the war without lapsing into cliche? As for every stage of the writing process so far, I’ve researched my subject as thoroughly as possible.

It helps that I’m not trying to write an ‘everyman’, but capture a particular experience based on the service career of a historical person, and I’m fortunate to be able to draw on his letters home as a record of the trenches at this stage in the war. My main character, the narrator of one strand of the novel, is a reservist before 1914 and so arrives in Flanders on the eve of the Battle of 1st Ypres. A Lieutenant in a fictional regiment, the Royal Scottish Borderers, he is caught up in the Battle of Messines Ridge (29th Oct-0 2 Nov) and survives a nightmarish fortnight in trenches before being invalided home with trench foot.

I have to admit that I knew nothing about this battle, or the early stages of the war, until I began my research. I knew about the Somme of course, and 3rd Ypres, but not this first battle, which was absolutely fundamental in halting the Prussian advance towards Paris and established the trench network that would comprise Western Front as it remained until Summer 1918. I’ve found a number of books helpful, including Alan Palmer’s The Salient: Ypres 1914-18, A Storm in Flanders by Winston Groom and Ian F.W. Beckett’s Ypres: The First Battle 1914, which contains an incredibly detailed account of the campaign which begins with the evocative quote ‘We were only clinging to the ground by our eyelids’.

1914 trench

Sergeant Christopher Pilkington, 2nd Scots Guards BEF. Excavation of a trench in France, November 1914.

These are not yet the trenches familiar from novels and television. There are no fortifications, no duckboards or  infrastructure. They are basic defensive ditches, often flooded with a foot of water, prone to collapse if a shell hits nearby. No Man’s Land does not yet exist. The fields are still green and the woods wooded. Livestock wander loose, sometimes falling into trenches. There are few communication and support trenches so hot food and even tea or coffee are hard to prepare. There are no latrines. Men who are ‘caught short’ urinate or defecate into old food tins and lob them over the parapet. There are no dug-outs; even officers sleep, if at all, on waterproof sheets in the open air.

In writing fiction set during the first world war, I find it easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material written both by contemporary writers and subsequent historical fictions. I’ve been trawling my way through both. I’ve just read Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End tetrology (though I must confess that like, Tom Stoppard recent BBC production, I ignored the last book). I found No More Parades and A Man could stand up… most useful for immersion in the idiom of the day (turns of phrase such as  ‘getting in on’  someone, and my favorite line from McKecknie “why isn’t one a beastly girl and privileged to shriek”) as well as little details about trench life, such as the use of bully beef cases as furniture. Ian Hay’s The First Hundred Thousand was also illuminating for its entertaining sketches about everyday life in a Company, though the book deals with ‘Kitchener’ volunteers and not professional soldiers as fought in the BEF in 1914. I also need to read Journey’s End and reread Memoirs of an Infantry Officer  and Goodbye to All That. Oh, and poetry. The endless poetry.

One of the challenges I need to reflect on is that my narrator is ostensibly reflecting on his war experiences from the vantage point of the late 1920s. This means that he is aware of other  memoirs about the war which were starting to appear at that time. I’ve found Paul Fussell’s classic The Great War and Modern Memory useful for thinking about the conventions of Great War memoirs.

I still have a long, long way to go.