Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfied Sassoon is a perfect choice for the Turn of the Century Salon. It’s the first part of his fictionalised autobiography. The other two books in his trilogy are Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston’s Progress.
Siegfried Sassoon was born in 1886 and in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man he relives his childhood, youth and experiences as an officer during the First World War. He wrote it in 1928, ten years after the War had ended, calling himself George Sherston. Life for young George/Siegfried was almost idyllic, living in the country as part of the privileged upper class, although his lifestyle exceeded his income. His aunt’s groom, Dixon, taught him to ride and introduced him to the fox-hunting world. At first Siegfried’s sympathies were with the fox and, at one of his first hunts, on spotting a fox he was alarmed so much that when his companion shrieked ‘Huick-holler’ (meaning the fox has been seen) he uttered the words ‘Don’t do that; they’ll catch him.’
Sassoon paints a beautiful picture of the English countryside and country life at the turn of the century. In the passage quoted below he wakes early on the morning of the local village flower show, looking forward to playing in the Flower Show Cricket Match:
When I unlocked the door into the garden the early morning air met me with its cold purity; on the stone step were the bowls of roses and delphiniums and sweet peas which Aunt Evelyn had carried out there before she went to bed [in preparation for the Flower Show]; the scarlet disc of the sun had climbed an inch above the hills. Thrushes and blackbirds hopped and pecked busily on the dew-soaked lawn, and a pigeon was cooing monotonously from the belt of woodland which sloped from the garden toward the Weald. Down there in the belt of river-mist a goods train whistled as it puffed steadily away from the station with a distinctly heard clanking of buffers. How little I knew of the enormous world beyond that valley and those low green hills. (page 53)
The first part of the book is carefree, as Siegfried passes through his school years and time at Cambridge University, which he left before completing his degree. Not a lot happens. His life, despite his lack of funds was a seemingly endless round of riding and hunting. He describes his friends and fox-hunting companions with affection and realism – the old country gentlemen, the benevolent gentry, the newly rich and the dare-devil younger riders, who were ‘reckless, insolent, unprincipled and aggressively competitive; but they were never dull, frequently amusing, and, when they chose, had charming manners.’ (page 235)
Siegfried, himself comes across as a likeable young man, shy, reserved, and modest, happy-go-lucky but aware of his own shortcomings.
All this changed with the onset of the First World War. He enlisted and was eventually posted to France, where because of his connections and abilities, he was appointed as a Transportation Officer stationed behind the trenches and the Front Line. But war brought him face to face with the grim realities of life and death. At first he was philosophical about the War – it seemed ‘inevitable and justifiable. Courage remained a virtue.’ But writing in 1928 he considered:
And that exploitation of courage, if I may be allowed to say a thing so obvious, was the essential tragedy of the War, which as everyone now agrees, was a crime against humanity. (page 256)
He sees men under his command die and suffer appallingly, his friends die, and Dixon his former groom who had enlisted died of pneumonia. Whilst home on leave as he talked to an old friend of Dixon’s he realised the past had gone …
- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Faber and Faber; 2nd edition (31 Jan 1974)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 057106454X
- ISBN-13: 978-0571064540
- Source: library book
Sassoon is one of the of the War Poets. Unlike others, such as Rupert Brooke, he survived the War. He came to the conclusion that the war was being needlessly prolonged. In 1917 he wrote a protest to his commanding officer. Its impact was reduced because rather than facing a court martial he was tried by a medical board and was judged to be suffering from severe shell shock. His account of the ruling is in the second part of his trilogy Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1931). He was sent to Craiglockhart military hospital where he met Wilfred Owen, also one of the War Poets. It was in the hospital that Sassoon published some of his war poems. I’ll write more about those in another post and also more about his life when I’ve read Siegfried Sassoon: a biography by Max Egremont (which I’ve reserved at the library). In his later years he wrote The Old Century, The Weald of Youth andSiegfried’s Journey, three volumes of non-fictionalised autobiography.