Tuesday, February 15, 2005


I finally finished Ancestral Voices by James Lees-Milne. When I say "finally" I don't want you to think that this was one of those please-just-let-it-be-done books that you can't stop reading because you're too far invested. I say "finally" because it took me a long time to read. It is a diary and I think it is just the nature of diaries that one cannot read more than 10-20 pages at a sitting. James Less-Milne began work for the National Trust early in it's history and continued there for many years as its Advisor on Historic Buildings. Ancestral Voices is his diary from 1942-1943. At this time it was his job to meet with people who wanted to give their property to the Trust and decide if the property was worthy. He also checked up on properties the Trust already owned to make sure they were being maintained. In his diary he writes about the people he meets and the property he sees, friends (Eddy Sackville, Harold Nicholson, a few Churchills, and many other names) and acquaintances he dines with, the latest gossip, politics and his observations on life. He has a great sense of humor, a keen eye, and a mean streak that all make for good reading. Here is his opinion, dated 23rd April, 1942, of Wool House in Loose:

The house is a hideous, pretentious, genteel over-restored fake, just like its inhabitants. A horrible property. I hope it gets bombed.
There are his thoughts on Evelyn Waugh:
I said that Evelyn represented English Catholicism which was anathema to me. It was the very reverse of Roman Catholicism. It was sectarian, superior, exclusive and smug. Besides, Evelyn was the nastiest tempered man in England, Catholic or Protestant, and not an acceptable advertisement of the Christian faith. I said his review of Raymond's book was personal vituperation. Having delivered myself of these ill-mannered phrases, I felt better and enjoyed the dinner party.
One of the best things about the book is his wonderful descriptive abilities when he writes about the people he meets:
Lady Clementine looks at one with the intensity of a psychoanalyst. And the expression on her face says, 'I have seen the inmost recesses of your squalid little mind. You are a worm only fit to be trampled underfoot.' She is a handsome and forbidding woman.
If you are a person who likes to read diaries I highly recommend James Lees-Milne. Unfortunately for us in the States, his books are out of print. I got my copy from the library, so try there. If you must own, his books are in print in the UK and can be ordered online.