Jon Elsby

Maurice Baring (1874–1945) – poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, critic, and all-round man of letters – rather reminds one of what E. M. Forster wrote about the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy – namely, that he stood “at a slight angle to the universe”. Baring seems to have had a similar oblique quality.

A member of the Baring banking family, he was born into the aristocracy (his father was the first Lord Revelstoke and his mother the grand-daughter of the second Earl Grey) and also into immense wealth and privilege – so much so that Emma Letley’s account of his early years (“The Enchanted Land (1874-1898)”) has an atmosphere of almost magical fantasy about it, like Alain-Fournier’s novel, Le Grand Meaulnes. It conjures up a world that has vanished so completely that it might never have existed: a slightly unreal, paradisal world of great country houses, exquisitely tasteful surroundings, extravagant parties, aristocratic families, beautiful women, elegant gentlemen, and, by today’s more egalitarian standards, a somewhat sybaritic opulence. As was customary in his family, Baring was schooled at Eton, and then proceeded to Cambridge and Oxford successively, despite his inability to grasp even the rudiments of Mathematics. The best private tutors that money could buy were unable to remedy this defect. How he managed to get accepted at Cambridge, and then at Oxford, is not satisfactorily explained, but the fact that he was so well connected cannot have hurt his chances.

Baring’s innumeracy meant that he was unsuited to enter the family business. After university, he led for several years a checkered existence, first as a diplomatic attaché, and later as a journalist. He was generously supported financially by his elder brother and other family members, which meant that he was able to live lavishly and indulge his penchant for irresponsible (and sometimes very expensive) schoolboy pranks, in spite of his own modest (or non-existent) earnings. On formal occasions, he wore clothes of the best quality, he smoked a special brand of cigarettes which could be procured only from a particular tobacconist in London, he dined at the finest restaurants, and his habits in general were far from frugal. Letley records that

Though unpaid [as a diplomatic attaché], Maurice was […] habitually extravagant. […] He became addicted to “the expensive craze of constructing anthologies for himself by the simple process of cutting favourite poems out of hundreds of books and periodicals and pasting them in admirably bound manuscript books.” The books so compiled he called “gepack” (luggage) and there were two types – Heavy Luggage and Light Luggage; as soon as one volume was complete, it would be given to a (generally) delighted recipient and another one started. Best known of the gepack is the published anthology, Have You Anything to Declare? (1936).

It is difficult to speak of such things without seeming envious or censorious, but one cannot, in good conscience, approve of the sort of insouciance that leads to the vandalizing of books or the breaking of all the plates and glasses after a riotous party. It recalls Evelyn Waugh’s caustic gibe about “English county families baying for broken glass”. Only people born into the wealthiest stratum of society are, or can afford to be, so thoughtlessly wasteful and destructive.

In 1909, Baring converted to Roman Catholicism from his previous agnosticism. He never discussed his conversion either before or afterwards, saying only that it was “the only action in my life which I am quite certain I have never regretted.” The most personal literary account he has left us of this critically important decision, is in the beautiful sonnet sequence “Vita nuova”.

As a poet, Baring was certainly not a modernist, but neither was he prone to the artificial archaisms of the Georgian poets. The best of his poems (and there are not a few of them) combine directness and simplicity of diction with delicacy of feeling and subtlety of expression. They have a classical restraint, owing partly to the poet’s technical mastery of verse forms, and partly to their understated quality, which is rare in the poetry of any language. Here, for example, are some lines he called “Stop-Shorts”, explaining that “Stop-Shorts are Chinese poems in four lines. They are called Stop-Shorts because the sense goes on when the sound stops”:

STOP-SHORTS

The lake is growing grey: the lotus flower

Remains yet roseate with the sunset hour.

The moon has climbed above the mountain’s rim:

The water shines: the lotus flower is dim.

*

The mist is on the sky and sea, a veil:

And in the silver stuff a russet sail.

*

I waited for you all the dark night long,

And listen lonely to the sky-lark’s song.

*

The twilight is not darker than the day,

And pipes are playing somewhere far away.

*

Here once a thousand men in battle died,

Where the red clover grows by the wayside.

This elegiac note is something we encounter often in Baring’s poetry; in fact, it occurs in nearly all his work, in prose as well as in verse.

Baring travelled widely and possessed a remarkable facility for languages, speaking French, Italian, German, Russian and Danish, fluently, and being able to read in several other languages. He became an authority on Russia and Russian literature, and wrote extensively on both subjects. An insightful, discriminating critic, he was probably the first Western writer to recognize the genius of Dostoevsky. [1] But, unlikely as it seems, it was in the Great War of 1914–18 that Baring really came into his own. Though apparently utterly unsuited to the discipline of military life, he served with the Royal Flying Corps with such distinction that his commanding officer, Colonel Hugh Trenchard,[2] who had initially doubted Baring’s suitability for service in the RFC, wrote after Baring’s death, “He was the most unselfish man I have ever met or am likely to meet. The Flying Corps owed to this man much more than they know or think.” Letley records that

General Foch summed up the extraordinary career of this unlikely soldier: “there never was a staff officer in any country, in any nation, or in any century, like Major Maurice Baring.”

During the war, Baring lost many close friends. Afterwards, he realized that the war had taken its toll of him. His health was poor and he felt exhausted. Although he was only 44 years old, he described himself as “a bald-headed half-blind crock with half his inside cut out and an inflamed bladder and an inflated prostate gland and in perpetual danger of colitis.” After the war, like many who survived, he seems to have been haunted by a sense of loss and a pervasive melancholy which he hid under a mask composed, in equal parts, of upper-class English reserve and good manners, and the propensity for light-hearted jokes and witty banter that had always been one of his chief characteristics. But the sadness found an outlet in what now became his main occupation – the writing of fiction.

Baring’s novels have never been popular either with the general reading public or with academics and intellectuals, but he has always found a few discerning admirers. It is not hard to account for this. The novels evoke and recapture the mood and manners of a bygone age: the age when he was young and still inhabiting “the enchanted land”. To the Bloomsbury intellectuals, they seemed old fashioned. To academics, they seemed out of tune with the Modern Movement and therefore uninteresting. But for writers and readers who were indifferent to changing fashions and the moods of the moment, their perfect taste, psychological subtlety, and deceptive simplicity of manner, exerted a peculiar charm. Letley quotes André Maurois as saying of C. (one of Baring’s best-known novels) that “he had found comparable pleasure only in the work of Proust and Tolstoy”. Baring’s novels were translated into several European languages, and were more admired and widely read on the Continent, especially in France, than they were in England. François Mauriac thought that the English underestimated Baring, commenting astutely: “What I most admire about [Baring’s novels] is the sense he gives you of the penetration of grace – without making you aware of it”: a verdict which, when the actor and writer Robert Speaight communicated it to Baring, left him too moved to speak. Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, dismissed C. as “second rate art”, professed herself “quite unable” to read Baring’s novels, and called them “pallid and meretricious” – although if, as she claimed, she was unable to read them, one wonders on what she based her criticism.

Baring was a typical product of his cultural and familial background, which is to say that he was highly civilized, a thorough gentleman (he was incapable of being ill-mannered, whatever the provocation), and possessed a cultivated taste in all the arts. He was conversant with Latin and Greek, as well as the modern European languages already mentioned, and he was widely read in the literatures of all those languages. He was acquainted with the history of civilizations. However, he wore his learning lightly and was avowedly anti-intellectual. This cannot have commended him to the members of the liberal Bloomsbury Group, who were self-consciously intellectual and wore their learning on their sleeves: it seems there was no point in being clever and well-educated unless you let everyone else know just how clever and well-educated you were.[3]

The Baring who emerges from Letley’s biography is a man of surprising contradictions: a scion of the upper classes and a lover of luxury who preferred to travel third class because it allowed him to meet and talk to ordinary people; someone born into the aristocracy whose salient characteristics included modesty and humility; a man of extravagant habits who was described by his commanding officer as “the most unselfish man I have ever met”; a man who unaffectedly enjoyed the company of beautiful, intelligent, and sophisticated women, but who wrote only of disappointment in love, and of whom his friend, Lady Diana Cooper, said that she doubted whether any woman had ever been in love with him; an intellectual who was anti-intellectual; an inveterate joker who concealed beneath his japery a profound sadness; a gregarious man who was self-effacing and lived a solitary life; a lover of children (by whom he was adored) who had none of his own; a subtle, allusive writer who never outgrew his schoolboy love of slapstick; and a devout Catholic who never discussed religion with anyone outside the Church.[4] If, per impossibile, one could conceive an amalgam of P. G. Wodehouse, Monsignor Ronald Knox, and Henry James, one would come close to capturing the essence of Maurice Baring.

In the last ten years of Baring’s life, he suffered from Parkinson’s Disease: a cross he bore with a quiet, uncomplaining fortitude at which all who witnessed it marvelled. From August 1940 until his death on 14 December 1945, Baring lived as a “loved and honoured guest” at the Highland home, on the island of Eilean Aigas, of Laura Lady Lovat, the last of his “Beauties”. She later wrote of Baring’s last year that

With the end of the summer he seemed to grow more remote from the events of this world, except those which affected his immediate surroundings; for these his sympathy and care never varied, and if possible increased. But the problems of the world’s agony he felt could now be left only to its Creator.

Baring’s old commanding officer, Hugh Trenchard, wrote his obituary in The Times. A man not given to exaggeration, he wrote of Baring that he was “truly the best character I ever knew” and that his spirit would live on “especially in the Air Force – I feel that there will be thousands waiting to welcome him on the other side.” Conrad Russell,[5] another close friend, observed to Lady Diana Cooper that “no man ever got such praise as Maurice got from Trenchard. I was very glad. It’s strange to think that Maurice’s real claim to greatness may be as a staff officer – not as a man of letters.”

From time to time, admirers of Baring’s work have prophesied that, one day, there will be a revival of interest in him, and he will at last be given his due as one of the finest writers of his age. Perhaps they are right. But their hopes may be disappointed, and Baring might remain one of those unlucky writers who are destined to be admired by a few and ignored by the many. In Emma Letley, his great-niece, he has at least found a worthy biographer and an eloquent apologist. The last word should be left to her. She concludes her biography thus:

It was not surprising that at Farm Street [6] there was “little sorrow” now that “the martyrdom of Maurice Baring was over and those who mourned were mourning their own last hope of seeing once again, in this life, their incomparable friend”.

Notes

[1] The brilliant Constance Garnett translations had not then appeared: Baring read Dostoevsky in the original Russian.

[2] Hugh Trenchard was a colonel when Baring first knew him. He later became Marshal of the Royal Air Force, 1st Viscount Trenchard GCB, OM, GCVO, DSO. He has been described as “the Father of the Royal Air Force”.

[3] I suspect that Baring would have regarded the Bloomsburys’ intellectual ostentation and addiction to one-upmanship as “not quite the thing” – but would have been too well-bred to say so.

[4] Baring adjured Belloc to “never, never, never talk theology or discuss the Church with those outside it. People simply do not understand what you are talking about and they merely (a) get angry and (b) come to the conclusion that one doesn’t believe in the thing oneself and that one is simply doing it to annoy.”

[5] Conrad Russell (1878–1947) was an English farmer and letter writer. He is remembered today chiefly for his humorous correspondence with some of the most celebrated society beauties of his time. He was a cousin of the philosopher, Bertrand Russell, and is not be confused with the latter’s sons, John Conrad Russell (1921–1987) and Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell (1937–2004). Evelyn Waugh called him “one of the most exquisitely entertaining men I have known”.

[6] The site of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which is run by the Society of Jesus in Mayfair, central London. References to “Farm Street” are generally understood to mean the headquarters of the Jesuits in England.