All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis


The fact that it took me about two months to read this book should be no marker of its quality. I tire of biographies quickly, which is why I rarely read them; I get to the half way point, normally where the photographs are inserted, and start hankering for an actual story. This need for something fictional coincided with the pressing necessity of reading the books I was required to teach over the summer term, and so All Roads Lead to France got abandoned to the dusty outpost of my beside table until the half term holiday gave me the time and patience to pick it back up again. I’m glad I did, because it was worth persevering. Interestingly, as the biography progressed, my disliking for its central characters grew, but the fact that I remained compelled by the events is testament to Hollis’ tremendous ability both as a writer and storyteller.

Having seen the play The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, which could really have been an adaptation of this biography, I knew a fair bit about Edward Thomas and Robert Frost’s relationship already. Reading Edward’s wife Helen Thomas’ own version of events in her autobiography, As it Was, provided an interesting contrast to the view I had seen on stage. Edward Thomas was, on the surface of things, a man to be much admired. A remarkable writer, a lover of nature, a family man, a profound and thoughtful soul whose life ended prematurely fighting for the country he adored on the battlefields of France, he is prime fodder for the rhetoric of sentimentality and heroism that surrounds many of the poets who went to the Great War and never returned. However, in reality, he was a complex and conflicted man, frustrated by his lack of recognition in wider literary circles and suffocated by the demands of family life. Hollis is frank in his exploration of Thomas’ life, and his often infuriatingly self centred outlook. This is a powerful, moving and honest portrayal of a man, not a myth.

Edward Thomas grew up in London, one of several sons of traditional parents who believed in the values of the middle class. He always considered himself to be different; introspective and introverted, he hated city life and the prospect of the career in the civil service that his father had planned for him. He spent his free time tramping in the countryside and reading; this fanciful behaviour did not go down well with his father, and their relationship was fraught. When still in his teens, Thomas met Helen, who would become his wife, and they had a passionate relationship that culminated in a pregnancy when Thomas was still an undergraduate. Forced into the roles of husband and father with no particular desire to be either, Thomas’ dreams of being a writer had to be put on hold as he ¬†accepted whatever commissions came his way in order to put food on the table. Years of frustration followed, with the Thomas’ falling further into penury as their family expanded and Thomas scrabbled around for writing work. Despite becoming a well respected and much sought after literary critic, the majority of Thomas’ writing assignments were on topics that did not interest him, and the dream of living by his pen soon became a nightmare of tedious research and ever looming deadlines.

When Thomas met the American poet Robert Frost in 1913, a friendship developed that would change both of their lives profoundly. They inspired and motivated one another, buoying themselves up with dreams of a new life that they would share in Frost’s native New England, where they would farm and write and commune with the nature they both loved so much. It was Frost who encouraged Thomas to write poetry; he had never written any verse before. With Frost as his greatest advocate, Thomas had the courage to try this new form of writing, and to his surprise, they poured from his pen effortlessly. The war, and indecision, got in the way of their American dream, however; Frost escaped to the safety of his then neutral homeland, and Thomas, for various reasons, decided to enlist. The rest is history; Thomas was killed at the Front, leaving a now legendary archive of poems behind him, and since his death he has been eulogised by many, in varying degrees of hyperbole and sentiment. Getting past that to the real person is not an easy task, especially if you read Helen Thomas’ outpourings in her beautifully written but perhaps not strictly accurate accounts of their life together.

Thomas’ poetry is interesting and arresting, as is his life story. I couldn’t like him; his callous treatment of his wife and children irritated me beyond belief, but I still felt for him enormously. He wasn’t made for marriage and fatherhood; he was a loner, a free spirit who couldn’t cope with the demands of family life and should never have attempted it. He was a writer, but not of the material he longed to produce; his frustration at never quite achieving what he felt he was capable of throbs through every word he wrote. A deeply unhappy person who was also frequently capable of experiencing intense joy, Thomas always seemed to be trying to escape from something, always seemed to be striving to attain an ideal that he couldn’t quite reach. I couldn’t work out a real sense of who he was from this biography, and I liked that; I respected Hollis for not trying to put him into a neat and tidy box.

Like all of us, Thomas was a man of many facets, not all of them pleasant, and this thoroughly three dimensional and inconclusive exploration of his life does him credit even though it does not cover him in glory. I admire Thomas because he was an ordinary person who aspired to the extraordinary, and his ability to write beautiful poetry didn’t necessarily make him a beautiful person. In our age of celebrity sycophancy, I think it’s doubly important for us to remember that. I am grateful to Hollis for resisting the urge to rose tint and instead do Thomas the justice of a realistic portrait at long last. This is a remarkable book, and one that requires no prior knowledge of any of its subjects to enjoy. I haven’t read a more interesting and involving account of a person’s life since I read E B White’s biography a couple of years ago, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

ps. looking for some summer reading material? I’ve had another clearout of my shelves and there are some special books available for sale here.

The Mitford Girls by Mary S Lovell

Seeing as I’ve just started this blog I feel the nee d to write another post, to bulk things out a little. And yes, this isn’t a novel, but a biography, and I know I say I never read anything other than turgid novels, but that was a teensy lie and I am, if anything, a woman of many contradictions. So, a biography this is. I love a good biography, but usually only if the person (or people) it’s about are dead and/or rich and/or dysfunctional and/or very naughty and the good old Mitfords are all of those things in spades apart from the dear Duchess of Devonshire who is still very much alive and still very wonderful.

The Mitfords were a band of six sisters (and a brother, but he barely gets a look in and then tragically got killed in action after the war had ended) who were all born in the early years of the 20th century to Lord and Lady Redesdale, minor, impoverished and, of course, rather eccentric aristos who had a pile Somewhere North of London, and a gold mine, with, as it turned out, no gold in it, in Canada. Lord and Lady Redesdale also happened to have a talent for breeding attractive, intelligent and strong willed daughters. Nancy, the eldest daughter, grows up and goes to Oxford and becomes friends with everyone worth being friends with – mostly witty camp clever men who go to Oxford and end up being Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman and everyone else who was famous for being witty and camp and clever in the 20th century, and after much sadness and heartbreak etc ends up being a famous writer herself and living in Paris and writing the most hilarious and lovely books ever, despite loving a handsome cad who never loves her back.

Unity, the fourth daughter, goes skipping off to Germany, just so happens to fall in love with Hitler, and then shoots herself when war is declared, though, being a Mitford, she makes a real hash of it and doesn’t actually kill herself, but simply damages her brain, leaving her dependant on others for the rest of her short life. Diana, the third daughter and most beautiful, also meets Hitler and likes him very much and then falls in love with Sir Oswald Mosley the Fascist, leaves her nice but dim husband for him and then ends up in Holloway prison. Jessica, the fifth daughter, turns Communist, moves to America and blames Diana for her husband’s death in the war because she supports Hitler and doesn’t speak to her for the next…oh..thirty odd years. Debo, the youngest, marries a nice young man whose older brother dies and so she unexpectedly ends up as the Duchess of Devonshire, and also the peacemaker amongst her warring sisters, and then of course there’s the lovely Pam, the second daughter, who stays under the radar and looks after everybody else’s children when they’re off gallivanting around Europe and making headlines.

These sisters are hilarious – they behave like squabbling children well into their old age, refuse to speak to one another FOR YEARS when minor offences have been made, write nasty depictions of each other in their books, talk frequently in the made up language of their childhood and write the most wonderful, witty, scathing letters to each other that I’ve ever read. They were (are, in the case of Debo) all brave, independent, intelligent, beautiful and warm hearted women who lived through extraordinary times, were related to and friends with some of the biggest movers and shakers of the day, and carved lives that were very distinct from each other’s, some with great success, others with great tragedy. They didn’t always get along, and some of the sisters were very close while others couldn’t stand the sight of each other, but when it mattered, they stood together against the world, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with each of them as I read about their turbulent and fascinating lives.

And it’s not just the girls that come out as heroes; their mother, Sydney, was a truly remarkable woman who encouraged all of her girls to be themselves and always remained loyal, unbiased and loving despite what each one put her through. Their father, the wonderfully eccentric David, comes across as a real grumpy bear who loved his daughters and was deeply sorry to lose contact with them as they grew up and left home. The marriage of the Mitfords and their affection for one another, even after they have moved into separate homes, was one of the most touching aspects of the book.

All in all, this is a wonderful read, that is written in a gossipy, mostly unbiased style (it’s clear Mary Lovell doesn’t think much of Jessica) and rips along at a rate of knots…I could barely put it down! The Mitfords all led such eventful lives, and as they were so involved in the great debates of the day, and knew all of the people worth knowing at the time, their story also becomes, in a way, the story of the 20th century itself. Remarkable, fascinating, at times infuriating (Unity, Jessica and Diana in particular are not the most reasonable of women) and unforgettable -I’m moving on to their letters next. Read it! Now! You can buy your own copy here.