After his first novel was published, Somerset Maugham was a frequent guest at Holmhurst, in Sussex, of that indiscreet memoirist, Augustus Hare, then in his sixties. At morning worship, with the servants, Maugham noticed that the wording of the prayers was unfamiliar. ‘I’ve crossed out all the passages in glorification of God,’ explained Hare. ‘God is certainly a gentleman, and no gentleman cares to be praised to his face. It is tactless, impertinent and vulgar. I think all that fulsome adulation must be highly offensive to him.’
Even as a child, warned of an all-seeing eye, Augustus seems to have sensed that God was a gentleman, for according to Malcolm Barnes’s biography, he asked: ‘Does God look through the keyhole?’ It has to be said that as an author and gentleman Hare would certainly have relished some fulsome adulation: instead of which he was accused, on the strength of his six-volume autobiography, of being tactless, impertinent and vulgar.
It is a pity there are not more outside glimpses to be obtained of the peripatetic Hare, a man who ate more hot dinners in other people’s houses than anyone of his age, yet avoided the company of literary men, perhaps because they tended not to be gentlemen. (He once left a note for Maugham pointing out his vulgar error in asking for a ‘drink’, instead of ‘something to drink’, which may well have stimulated Nancy Mitford to write her essay on Hare.) Sir Osbert Sitwell has testified to the mild panic which met Hare’s arrival at a garden party at Renishaw, when ‘the ladies held their hats to their heads and fled, fearing that he might include them in his next book.’ A useful peep, to be sure: but, regrettably, almost all the facts about Hare have to be extracted from his own works.
Though he served his generation well as a writer of reliable guidebooks, Hare is remembered almost wholly for the singular tales of Victorian high life to be found embedded in his grossly padded autobiography. Malcolm Barnes has already rendered down the six volumes of The Story of My Life into two, which were published over thirty years ago. Readers unfamiliar with these, or with the original, may wish that Barnes had included more of Hare’s delectable anecdotes in the present work, if only to show what so agitated the reviewers. Here, at least, is the account of the savage-looking Shah of Persia, at Hatfield, amusing himself with ‘monkeyish and often dirty tricks’, like wiping his wet hands on the coat-tails of the gentleman next to him, and when the Baroness Burdett-Coutts was presented to him, looking her in the face and exclaiming: ‘Quelle horreur!’ One will search in vain for Hare’s account of the obsequies of the tenth Duke of Hamilton, who elected to be buried in an Egyptian princess’s sarcophagus too small for him. ‘Double me up! Double me up!’ were his parting words, but no amount of doubling up would suffice and they had to cut his feet off (his mausoleum by contrast was of unusually ample dimensions, being 120 feet high and visible for miles). Nor will one find that vintage Hare story of the pretty peasant woman living near Belvoir who was asked why her middle tooth was missing and replied that the Duchess (of Rutland) had lost the corresponding tooth and ‘forced me to have mine taken out to replace it’.
It was on such anecdotes, gathered largely from fellow guests and much retold, that Hare dined out; and it was the retelling of them in print that eventually called in question his own gentlemanly status (‘wholly without delicacy’, ‘wanting in propriety’). There were also objections to Hare’s revelations of how he had been abused as a child, which were seen as a discourtesy to those who had abused him. ‘What is Mr Hare?’ demanded Blackwood’s. ‘He is neither anybody nor nobody – neither male nor female, neither imbecile nor wise ...’ and so on, in a rare tizzy.
What, then, was he? Born in 1834, he was the son of spendthrift, Rome-based expatriates who could not be bothered bringing him up and off-loaded him onto his mother’s widowed sister-in-law, Maria Hare. Augustus assures us that his mother wrote in these terms: ‘My dear Maria, how very kind of you! Yes, certainly the baby shall be sent to you as soon as it is weaned; and if anyone should like one, would you kindly recollect that we have others.’ This liberal parent had the blood of the Earls of Strathmore in her veins, a thought which helped to sustain Augustus in later life. He would have been greatly gratified, Barnes suggests, could he have known that two future queens of the realm were to claim the same descent.
Hare’s adoptive mother, whom he later called his ‘angel tyrant’, vowed to bring him up in ‘the nurture and admonition of the Lord’, with the emphasis on admonition. This she performed in the rectory at Herstmonceux (the castle had once been in the family), and Uncle Julius, the rector, was on hand to horsewhip the boy as required. Then two more aunts arrived to ensure that Augustus was not mollycoddled. With Maria’s weak compliance, Aunt Esther, described by him as ‘the Inquisition in person’, deprived him of all amusements, locked him in frigid rooms, snatched books from his grasp and, finding that he was fond of a cat, hanged it on a tree in the garden, showing the boy its twitching corpse. (This story has been doubted; perhaps a Victorian aunt would merely have drowned the cat, not hanged it.) All this was for the good of Augustus’s soul. Aunt Esther was not to know that his school mates, adepts in ‘infantine immoralities’, were undoing all her good work: ‘I was compelled to eat Eve’s apple quite up – indeed, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was stripped absolutely bare; there was no fruit left to gather.’
Yet the much-put-upon Augustus grew up independent of spirit and at 17 was even enjoying himself, taking especial pleasure in visiting castles and great houses. After a troubled stint at Oxford he decided against entering the Church and drifted into the writing of guidebooks for the expanding railway age. His first publisher was John Murray the third, who wanted an anonymous Handbook on Berks, Bucks and Oxfordshire and insisted on facts, not fancies. Hare regretfully accepted this limitation. Much of his early travelling was done with Maria, by now a prey to hysterical trances. When he was 37 she died and he dropped everything to write a three-volume family record in her honour, Memorials of a Quiet Life. This farrago of piety and unction sold staggeringly well, especially in America, whence came numerous pilgrims to visit the scenes where such exemplary lives had been lived. Carlyle thought the work ‘profoundly touching’.
Then it was back to guidebooks. Hare’s working method was to get himself invited under as many roofs as possible. He had an inexhaustible seam of ‘cousins’ and hunted them up assiduously. They passed him on to their friends and Augustus, who had the power to ingratiate himself, was borne about the country on a wave, or at least a trickle, of welcome. His books brought him further contacts, which he exploited to the full. If the proud descendant of ‘the Hares of Herstmonceux’ met rebuffs we do not hear of them, though he tells of the day he turned up at the Duke of Wellington’s London home with a none-too-helpful chit (from the second Duke) saying: ‘Admit Mr Hare to see Apsley House on any day when the street outside is dry.’
Hare was an outrageous snob with an affinity for elderly titled ladies, who perhaps found the company of a gentlemanly writer of guidebooks less taxing than the conversation of poets and philosophers. He entertained his hostesses not only with tales of travel but with ghost stories as well. But, as his biographer points out, a talent for telling ghost stories was not much help at those day-long ‘breakfasts’ in the open air. It is still something of a mystery why he was asked everywhere and even more of a mystery why he went, in the light of admissions that over long periods of dining out he could remember nobody of interest whatever. ‘We wonder what his hosts must have thought when they saw these comments in print later!’ exclaims his biographer.
On his travels in Europe he underwent alarming discomforts. A bad sailor, he would ‘have himself lightly chloroformed’ into a stupor for the voyage. (Chloroform was sold for this purpose, but who administered it to Hare – the steward? Did lovers chloroform each other?) Hare survived bolting horses, upset carriages, floods, plunder and pestilence. Southern Italy, notably Calabria, was conspicuously vile, flea-ridden and malarial: ‘the so-called inns the filthiest of hovels; the people ruffians; the remains of the Greek cities a few stones apiece.’ Not surprisingly, his guide to Southern Italy was less thorough and sold far fewer copies than his Walks in Rome, which had a fifty-year shelf-life.
Hare’s finest hour came when he was invited to dine at Potsdam by a royal admirer, the Crown Princess Victoria. Another constant reader, the Queen of Norway-Sweden (as it then was), also took him up and, on a trip in the mountains, discussed her spiritual problems with him. ‘This curious little man, with his walrus moustache, metallic voice, large nose and protuberant eyes, surely had a way where noble ladies were concerned.’ Hare earned the Order of St Olaf by acting as bear-leader in Rome to the unpromising son of Oscar II. It was an unsatisfactory, ill-defined arrangement, but like most bear-leaders a little out of their social depth Hare was able to detect greatness of soul in his prince where others might have missed it.
Hare was in the category known in those days as ‘not the marrying kind’ (‘neither male nor female’ was unfair). In Europe he sometimes travelled in female company, once taking a distant relative to Spain in barbarous mid-winter. Sophia, chaperoned by a maid, must surely have been in love with him, or she would have withdrawn from that appalling journey. He affected to be deeply upset by her death years later. In Sweden, Sicily and Russia he travelled intermittently with the Misses Holland, daughters of a successful physician, but never allowed them to get in the way of his plans. They were lively and resourceful, the kind of ladies who could safely be abandoned in Kiev to find their own way home.
In middle age Hare played ‘the hospitable and generous host to a number of young men’. Like Maugham, they spent a night or two at Holmhurst and, according to Hare, found it a relief from their dull life in London: though they are unlikely to have indulged in what Maugham dismissed as that ‘intolerably tedious game called Halma’. Nobody will be surprised to learn that they turned out to be a wayward and rapacious crew, who borrowed substantial sums on fanciful pretexts and never repaid them. They were not exactly rough trade, since two of them took Holy Orders. Barnes’s view of these relationships is lenient: ‘there is some evidence of latent homosexuality, but it is very doubtful that there was any improper relationship with any of them.’ The young men, he thinks, may have expected more from their gullible host than was forthcoming – more than Halma, certainly. It may well be that God would have seen nothing untoward through the keyhole.
There were many freakish fish in the Victorian literary tank. Among these Hare may have been a tiddler, but tiddlers can be fun and Malcolm Barnes’s efforts to net him, turning him over and over in the process, show a commendable diligence. The reader may well be impressed by Hare’s fortitude, not only in the consumption of hot dinners. He was a remarkably hard worker in his chosen trade and his output of words was tremendous, even allowing for the unpardonably long quotations for which he was notorious. He was strong enough to shrug off the insolences of the professional classes – an embezzling family lawyer, predatory publishers, hostile historians, a judge who, in a family libel case, was so far disturbed by diarrhoea and an overheated courtroom that he dashed his wig on the floor in a frenzy, gave a contemptuous award and stalked out. Or was that another touched-up Hare story? Somerset Maugham professes gratitude to Hare for his coaching in the ways of gentlefolk; and though he found the old codger in some ways ‘faintly ridiculous’, he was by no means unimpressed to see that, in a corner of his grounds, Hare ran a small hospice for needy gentlewomen, with all costs paid for a month. There was to be nothing like that at the Villa Mauresque.
The book should have a special piquancy for those familiar with James Lees-Milne’s sparkling volumes about the years he spent flitting round stately homes during and after World War Two, making the most of such high life as was going. The most recent volume is Midway on the Waves; the others, all with titles lifted or derived from ‘Kubla Khan’, were Ancestral Voices, Prophesying Peace and Caves of Ice. As adviser on historic buildings for the National Trust, Lees-Milne looked in at many of Hare’s old dining haunts, by now facing straitened times. On his recommendation, Herstmonceux Castle, restored after the neglect it suffered from Hare’s ancestors, had been disposed of to the Astronomer Royal as a new home for Greenwich Observatory. Whereas the second Duke of Wellington had kept Hare at chit’s length, the seventh Duke, ‘Gerry’, with ‘20 gallons of petrol a month for being a duke’, confided the state of his finances to Lees-Milne, along with his hope that Parliament would take back Apsley House, while leaving him a foothold there. Hospitality tended to be meagre (beer, not wine, at Stratfield Saye) but Raby Castle produced mutton, cream-filled éclairs and rich plum cake. Montacute housed 600 American black soldiers, one of whom asked permission to pick a posy of flowers for his colonel. Ham House was tenanted by defeated and ‘anti-world’ Tollemaches. Osterley, where Hare had joined the throng celebrating the Queen’s jubilee, was bomb-blasted and ravaged by training exercises. War had neither wiped out idiosyncrasy nor abated old prejudices. ‘Papists,’ complained Chatsworth’s lord, ‘owe a divided allegiance. They put God before country.’ Lees-Milne was in the social circuit of Lady Cunard, attending her ‘ordinary’ at the Dorchester Hotel, which, when frustrated by rationing, she despised as ‘a commercial traveller’s doss-house’; he was also welcomed at Lady Colefax’s ‘ordinary’ at the same hotel. Like Hare, Lees-Milne obviously ‘had a way where noble ladies were concerned’. He, too, wrote guidebooks in his spare moments and was glad of a chance to escape to Rome.
Parallels must not be pushed too far. Sharp of eye, sharp of tongue, economical of prose, Lees-Milne has not suffered, as far as one recalls, any critical trouncing for his indiscretions, or for naming those of his circle whose dentures flew out and were skilfully fielded in flight. Certainly candour is unimpoverished in Midway on the Waves, which assesses the pretensions of friezes, wainscots, balusters and putti as unsparingly as it views the down-at-heel squires, the ‘oafish’ or ‘lumpish’ littérateurs and the socialist politicians who lack trust in the Trust. Happily there are unsuspected architectural glories, just as there are ‘sweet’ and ‘infinitely sympathetic’ people who do not over-value their possessions or talents. Lees-Milne is unhappy about some Trust properties (Alderley Mill is a ‘wretched acquisition’) but the great houses like Blickling and Attingham are being licked into shape and he is at his happiest refurnishing their interiors. The life is strenuous to a degree, its elegance impaired by defective cars, ‘filthy’ meals in hotels and the exhalations of the people (‘Oh, the smell of the English. I even notice it in the open Park’). There are as many ‘Hons’ here as in Nancy Mitford, who herself keeps turning up. One of them is the exasperating Harold Nicolson, later the subject of a Lees-Milne biography; another flies his personal flag on his car, with a chauffeur to encase it in a black leather sheath, as required, as if he were a field-marshal; another carries live toads in his pockets, even into restaurants which turn away dogs. New faces in the diary include that of Anthony Blunt, eager to advise on pictures. He provokes this comment: ‘All art experts are notoriously uncharitable about each other, especially if they are friends.’
A deft set-piece describes the author’s private audience at the Vatican. Preceding him is a young Texan who cannot decide whether to give the Pope a pocketful of gold trinkets as a souvenir, or to slip him a cheque. Lees-Milne, though much weakened by emotion, is yet able to observe how the Pontiff contrives to have his own souvenir – a ‘not very expensive medal’ – to hand for presentation. Towards the end of the book the author is pursuing an obsessive affair of the heart which brings this advice from a friend: ‘You have to bear in mind that you may be sacrificing your country, your religion, your career and your independence.’ No footnote informs the reader of the outcome. Will it be described in a later volume, to be entitled ‘The Milk of Paradise’ or even ‘In Fast Thick Pants’? In fact, it can be found in Who’s Who.
In many ways Augustus Hare has the last laugh. He saw the haut ton, not sheltering under dust sheets in caves of ice, weary of their birthrights, but in their orgulous prime, free of self-doubt, unafraid to box their servants’ ears and superbly hospitable.