Siegfried Sassoon A Life

Max Egremont

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




656 Pages



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Siegfried Sassoon was born in 1886 in Kent, and began writing verses as a boy. While a brave young officer, he confronted the terrible realities of the First World War on the battlefield, in verse, and, finally, by announcing his opposition to the war in 1917, showing that physical courage could exist alongside humanity and sensibility.

In 1918, Sassoon found himself one of the most famous young writers of the time, a mentor to Wilfred Owen, and admired by Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence. He joined the Labour Party, became literary editor of the socialist Daily Herald, and began close friendships with Thomas Hardy and E.M. Forster, while trying to adapt his poetry to peacetime. Then Sassoon fell in love with the aristocratic aesthete Stephen Tennant, who led him into his group of Bright Young Things who inspired the early novels of Evelyn Waugh. At the demise of his passionate and fraught relationship with Tennant, Sassoon suddenly married the beautiful Hester Gatty in 1933 and retreated to a quiet country life until their eventual estrangement and Sassoon's subsequent conversion to Catholicism. Throughout the course of this turbulent life, Sassoon produced a body of work unequaled by his contemporaries. From his famous war poems, which have never ceased to resonate, to the gentler vision of his prose, Sassoon wrote masterfully of war and lost idylls. This work and its complex author are illuminated in Max Egremont's biography, which draws with unprecedented access on Sassoon's complete papers.


Praise for Siegfried Sassoon

"Egremont is extremely good on the war years, which are, after all, why we care about Sassoon. And he demonstrates, firmly but sympathetically, that Sassoon's famous letter renouncing the war was muddled and naive, the product of manipulation by Bertrand Russell and other Bloomsbury pacifists . . . Some people, like the critic and translator C. K. Scott Moncrieff, thought Sassoon a ridiculous and outmoded figure, but in Lord Egremont's telling he emerges as an immensely touching and sympathetic one—a man not entirely at home in his own skin, let alone in the world he was born to, but who plumbed the great trauma of his generation, the horrors of World War I, and unlike so many, told the truth about it and about himself."—The New York Times
"Siegfried Sassoon emerges from Max Egremont's biography as humane and gentle, sensitive as well as courageous, as a man of lasting historical and literary significance." —Wm. Roger Louis, past president, American Historical Association
"This is it. The thoroughly authentic, artistically intelligent biography we've been waiting for. The book is refreshingly rich and subtle as well as psychologically acute. Thank you, Max Egremont."—Paul Fussell, author of The Great War and Modern Memory
"Lucid biography of the eminent English poet, forever on the outside and never quite at home in his own time. Egremont agrees with Ronald Knox that Siegfried Sassoon was 'predominantly "a First War man,"' profoundly shaped by his experiences in the trenches of France and Belgium. Sassoon was wounded in battle but did not die, unlike his friend Wilfred Owen, who came to be considered the great English poet of the Great War. Sassoon grumbled about this, ungallantly; annoyed that an American anthology of WWI verse had more of Owen's poems than of his, Sassoon wrote to Edmund Blunden that 'the canonisation of Wilfred is still in full swing.' Sassoon was used to feeling snubbed; he was Jewish and gay at a time when British society had little tolerance for such things. As a teenager, he 'wanted to conform and from this came affection, sometimes love, for a type he was drawn to all his life: the man of character, not intellect.' So it was for most of his life, though in the late 1920s Sassoon was drawn into the preppy social circle surrounding the wealthy aesthete Stephen Tennant, the so-called Bright Young Thing who provided Evelyn Waugh with satirical ammunition for his early novels. Sassoon was deeply in love with Tennant, but the relationship was turbulent, and in 1933 he married a woman named Hester Gatty. The marriage was not successful, and Sassoon soon 'began to loathe her often reasonable demands for love and closeness'; now even more conflicted, he grew withdrawn, conservative and even puritanical, a champion of good-old-days England, old-fashioned in his own time and ever less popular with contemporary readers. His death certificate referred to him as 'poet and author retired,' while others remembered him as a 'desperately conventional man' who could never be as free as he wished. Thoughtful and well-paced—an illuminating study of the fine but now overlooked poet."—Kirkus Reviews
"Like his critics, Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967) suspected that it was WWI that gave his writing relevance and saved him from obscurity as a poet. Therefore, until his death, the British Sassoon oscillated between loathing and searching for the camaraderie and inspiration that he'd found in the trenches. In his attempts at escaping the war, Sassoon, a homosexual, went as far as marriage, fatherhood and the establishment of a traditional country estate. Meanwhile, he connected to the war by writing autobiographical novels: 'George Sherston, [the narrator of Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man] is Siegfried Sassoon with almost all the unusual, some might say the most interesting, bits left out. We get the diffidence, the self-deprecating humor, the love of country life, the sporting courage and the sensibility, without the sexual torment, the Jewishness, the poetry or Robert Graves.' In addition to relying on solid critical interpretations of Sassoon's writings, Egremont draws on unprecedented access to notes, drafts and correspondence, as well as the diaries of Sassoon's lover, Stephen Tennant. Their affair is one of the highlights of the book, where Sassoon appears most sympathetic, charming and talented. Egremont remains skeptical of his subject's greatness but his substantial . . . journey through this material illuminates the reasons why such a figure is worth honoring."—Publishers Weekly

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Max Egremont was born in 1948 and studied modern history at Oxford University. In addition to four novels, he is the author of three biographies, most recently Under Two Flags: The Life of Major General Sir Edward Spears. Egremont is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
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  • Max Egremont

  • Max Egremont was born in 1948 and studied modern history at Oxford University. In addition to four novels, he is the author of three biographies, most recently Under Two Flags: The Life of Major General Sir Edward Spears. Egremont is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
  • Max Egremont ©Kate Eshelby