The wonderful diaries of James Lees-Milne
Why do (some of us) love old houses? Even if the house is decrepit, falling down, a safety hazard, and capable of destroying the net worth of anyone foolish enough to attempt a rescue effort? My husband and I restored an 18th century house once; it cost twice what it was supposed to and took twice as long as it should have. In retrospect, the only way I can justify that enormous amount of money is to think of the entire episode as "an education" - perhaps equivalent to several semesters at a good trade school.
No one has loved old houses more than James Lee-Milne. If you drive around Britain enjoying the many splendid buildings preserved by the British National Trust, think of Lees-Milne and his extraordinary devotion to beauty, tradition and history.
By the 1940s, many great houses - you can think of places like Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice - were in danger of being lost. Because of social and economic changes, many aristocratic landowners could not longer afford the upkeep on their grand mansions. Lees-Milne, a brilliant and sensitive young man who had taken his degree at Oxford, had the good fortune to be hired by the newly created National Trust. His role was to inspect historic buildings as to their suitability for NT protection. The impecunious and often eccentric owners were quite as fascinating as their decaying homes. From 1942 to 1997, Lees-Milne kept diaries of his encounters with buildings and people, and these accounts are wonderfully witty, entertaining and insightful. He writes about his innumerable friends as well - and he knew everyone - Milne's observations can be kind, thoughtful or scathing. He must have been a great companion with a gift for friendship. For a taste of his style, here is an entry from July 17, 1942.
"The Moat House is a yeoman's house built in 1480 and altered in 1550. It has been owned by the Misses Smythe's family since 1743. It is an archaeologist's gem because of its high rich roof and ceiling timbers. It is wonderfully uncomfortable. There is no telephone, no water - but a pump in the garden - no heating, no light, no bath, and no water closet - but an outdoor twin earth closet also in the garden. The two old Smythe sisters gave us tea, stone cold, and delicious rye bread and butter, in a cosy, pitch- dark parlor with a bright fire in an open grate...(the description of the elderly ladies continues) Their garden is a wilderness, and shrubs are growing over the windows, which are festooned inside with the thickest blackout curtains of flannel."
I believe that this remarkable house was later restored at great expense by the National Trust.
Milne describes London society of the time with penetrating powers of observation that can be a bit acerbic at times.The progress of the war and how it affected the city is well-documented - also, where he dined, what he ate, his friends, their love affairs, eccentricities and foibles. You can get addicted to these diaries, as a perfect foil to living in our inelegant time.
Lees-Milne also wrote one of the best autobiographies ever! "Another Self" is the title. And you should read it, because it is hilariously funny, as well as wise and sad and brilliant. You will laugh aloud at the description of his arrival at his new boarding school. You learn how he came to love an appreciate old buildings - and why we all should. And, he tells his own love story that took place during the blitz - one of the saddest I've ever read.
Lees-Milne's books used to be hard to find and expensive, but I see that they are now available on kindle. There's hope for civilization after all!
Photo of the Warm Springs Pools, Warm Springs, VA. A historic treasure. See preservationbath.org
Some buildings need help right now!!