Harold Nicolson - He has devised a method of writing about people and about himself as though they were at once real and imaginary



Harold Nicolson, Some People, Faber Finds, 2013. [1927.]                                                                                                                                


On the face of it, bracketing Harold Nicolson and Vladimir Nabokov seems unexpected but the latter paid a remarkable tribute to Some People. When speaking to Harold Nicolson's son, Nigel, he confessed that all his life he had been fighting against the influence of Some People.' The style of that book is like a drug', he said. The critic and biographer, Stacy Schiff, has also admitted 'Some People has exerted more influence than I care to admit. I would reread it any day of the week.'

Ever since first publication in 1927 it has been attracting this sort of praise. It is an unusual book comprising nine chapters each one being a sort of character sketch: Miss Plimsoll; J. D. Marstock; Lambert Orme; The Marquis de Chaumont; Jeanne de Henaut; Titty; Professor Malone; Arketall; Miriam Codd. The author himself writes, a little disingenuously, 'Many of the following sketches are purely imaginary. Such truths as they may contain are only half-truths.' In fact, it would be difficult to point to one, other than Miriam Codd, that was 'purely imaginary', some were composite portraits, others skilful amalgams of divers traits from a variety of different people, and others much more overtly drawn from one real-life figure, for example Lambert Orme clearly represents Ronald Firbank, and Arketall Lord Curzon's bibulous valet.

There is nothing else quite like Some People and in its own playful way is beyond category. To be tedious for a moment, we have to call it fiction but are then immediately thrown by Virginia Woolf's deft summary, 'He lies in wait for his own absurdities as artfully as theirs. Indeed by the end of the book we realize that the figure which has been most completely and most subtly displayed is that of the author . . . It is thus, he would seem to say, in the mirrors of our friends that we chiefly live.'

Fiction? Biography? Autobiography? - the category doesn't matter, the result is spellbinding however you choose to read it.




WHEN Harold Nicolson's ''Some People'' was first published in 1927, Virginia Woolf praised it as a harbinger of a new attitude toward biography. ''He has devised a method of writing about people and about himself as though they were at once real and imaginary,'' she wrote. ''He has succeeded remarkably, if not entirely, in making the best of both worlds.'' A peculiar amalgam of autobiography and fiction, memoir and imaginative improvisation, ''Some People'' remains an inventive account of life in Edwardian England. The half century that has elapsed since its original publication only serves to underline how truly perspicacious Mr. Nicolson's portrait of that now-vanished era is, and its re-issue by Atheneum makes for a happy occasion indeed.
The third son of Lord Carnock, the late Mr. Nicolson was born with all the requisite patrician credentials, and over the years he made a distinguished career for himself as a diplomat, politician, biographer and historian. ''Some People,'' as his son Nigel recounts in an introduction to this edition, was initially conceived as a jeu d'esprit, a diversion written to entertain his friends. Although Mr. Nicolson's more dour colleagues in the Foreign Office were not amused by the book - they doubtless feared that they, too, would one day wind up in his stories - ''Some People'' went on to earn a measure of popular and critical acclaim as both a chatty entertainment and an ironic commentary on that period's idiosyncratic manners and mores.
Deceptively simple in execution, the book is comprised of nine portraits -portraits inspired by people whom Mr. Nicolson actually met in his perambulations through the upper echelons of British society. While Churchill, Mussolini and Proust make cameo appearances as themselves, the major characters have been heavily fictionalized. In fact, Mr. Nicolson anticipated by some 50 years the techniques that novelists such as E.L. Doctorow and practitioners of the New Journalism would later employ. Fact and fiction intertwine as real people surface in imaginary situations and imaginary people witness, from the sidelines, historical events.
There is Miss Plimsoll, the British governess, who wants her charge -the young Mr. Nicolson, himself - to join the Navy and uphold the glorious Empire; and Marstock, the very model of the publicschool hero, who is honorable, manly and just a little bit dim. We also meet Lord Curzon's drunken valet, who misplaces the diplomat's trousers; and the snobbish Marquis de Chaumont, who fritters away his talent on the altar of social success. Each of these characters, of course, represents a kind of epiphany of his age, and if the weaker ones teeter on the brink of becoming stereotypes, they are saved by Mr. Nicolson's light, Beerbohmesque prose, and his uncanny ability to delineate personality through gesture, mannerism and speech. The tilt of a hat, the choice of a practical joke, even the pronunciation of a word - these are all used to masterfully illuminate the delicate matters of class and social pretension.
For instance, Mr. Nicolson writes of Lambert Orme, a giddy esthete based on the author Ronald Firbank: ''It would be impossible, I feel, to actually be as decadent as Lambert looked.'' ''Clearly he was not my sort. He had the impudence to announce that he had resolved to devote himself to art, music and literature. 'Before I am twentyone,' he said, 'I shall have painted a good picture, written a novel, and composed a waltz.' He pronounced it valse.''
The character we come to know best in this book, however, is Mr. Nicolson, himself, for his consecutive encounters with these people and the institutions they represent mirror his own development, resulting in a narrative that reads like a Bildungsroman. At boarding school, he is cold and puzzled and underfed; at public school, he tries hard to be just like his hearty peers; and at Oxford he apes the other esthetes, joining a club where dinners are spent drinking champagne and throwing strawberries across the table.
From that ''snobbish period,'' he goes on to the Foreign Service, encountering on the way a variety of cads, stuffed-shirts and twits - most of whom he triumphs over in the best tradition of gentlemanly one-upmanship. That Mr. Nicolson is as willing to turn his irreverent wit on himself as on others saves the book from moralistic posturing. In fact while ''Some People'' occasionally seems slight, it is never solemn and almost unfailingly entertaining. - Michiko Kakutani


I enjoyed Harold Nicolson’s SOME PEOPLE (1957) enormously.  It’s a sort of patchwork autobiography told in nine sections, each section being a somewhat disguised character study of someone Nicolson knew in childhood, at school or during his experiences in the Diplomatic Service in various parts of the world.  HN is a wonderful stylist with a great gift for description of people and places; his prose is elegant, witty and an absolute pleasure to read, and the book is frequently laugh-out-loud.  But I could have done with a key to the book, because most of the time I had really no idea who Nicolson was describing (although I understand that Lambert Orme is writer Ronald Firbank). But it isn’t really necessary to know the real identity of the characters written about because they come to such vivid, idependent life via Nicolson’s pen. It’s a modern classic I think.  It’s very difficult to choose a favourite section because they’re all so good and enjoyable, but I particularly enjoyed LAMBERT ORME; MISS PLIMSOLL (Nicolson’s nanny); J.D. MARSTOCK (a school sporting hero); TITTY (a particularly useless colleague of HN’s in the Diplomatic Service); MIRIAM CODD (describing a lengthy journey to Tehran with a strange American woman).  But I think my favourite is ARKETALL (a very funny study of Lord Curzon’s hopeless, alcoholic valet and incidentally a fascinating picture of Lord Curzon himself).  This extract from LAMBERT ORME gives a good idea of Nicolson’s style and his skill at description.
It would be impossible, I feel, to actually be as decadent as Lambert looked.  I split the infinitive deliberately, being in the first place no non-split diehard (oh, the admirable Mr Fowler!), and desiring secondly to emphasise what was in fact the dominant and immediate consideration which Lambert evoked.  I have met many men with wobbly walks, but I have never met a walk more wobbly than that of Lambert Orme.  It was more than sinuous, it did more than undulate, it rippled. At each step a wave was started which passed upwards through his body, convexing his buttocks, concaving the small of his back, convexing again his slightly rounded shoulders, and working itself out in a backward swaying of the neck and head. This final movement passed off more rapidly than the initial undulations, with the resulting impression of a face upturned generally, but bowing at rhythmic intervals, as if a tired royalty or a camel slouching heavily along the road to Isfahan…..’  - Mikeharvey






Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) was a man of manifold talents: a diplomat, politician, journalist, broadcaster, historian, biographer, diarist, novelist, lecturer, literary critic, essayist and gardener. Perhaps most celebrated for his Diaries (reissued by Faber Finds in their original three volumes), they run the risk of obscuring the excellence of his other books. He wrote over thirty: Some People, Sir Arthur Nicolson, Peacemaking, 1919, Curzon, The Last Phase, 1919-1925, and The Congress of Vienna are all being reissued in Faber Finds. Harold Nicolson was educated at Wellington and at Balliol College, Oxford. He joined the Foreign Office in 1909, and in 1913 married the writer Vita Sackville-West. He was a member of the British delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. He left the Foreign Office in 1929, and in 1935 he was elected National Labour Member of Parliament for West Leicester. In 1940 he was appointed a Junior Minister in Churchill's wartime government.In his eulogy, John Sparrow, with affectionate aptness, described Harold Nicolson as 'a nineteenth-century Whig leading an eighteenth-century existence in the twentieth-century.'

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