Paperback: 512 pages
Publisher: John Murray Press, 2007
James Lees-Milne (1908-97) made his name as the country house expert of the National Trust and for being a versatile author. But he is now best known for the remarkable diary he kept for most of his adult life, which has been compared with that of Samuel Pepys and hailed as ‘a treasure of contemporary English literature’.
The first of three, this volume covers its first dozen years, beginning with his return to work for the National Trust during the Second World War, and ending with his tempestuous marriage to the exotic Alvilde Chaplin.
The diary vividly portrays the hectic social life of London during the Blitz, when in the intervals between struggling to save a disintegrating architectural heritage he enjoys a dizzying variety of romantic experiences with both sexes. His descriptions of visits to harassed country-house owners are as perceptive as they are hilarious.
With the war’s end, the mood changes as he portrays a world of gloom and austerity. He shares the prevailing pessimism, yet during these years arranges the transfer of some of England’s loveliest houses to the safe keeping of the National Trust. Finally he escapes from England to live on the Continent with his beautiful paramour, yet remains restless and dissatisfied.