Virginia Barton

Maurice Baring and “The Puppet Show of Memory”

 

The Chesterton Review, February 1988

 

Review: The Puppet Show of Memory by Maurice Baring (London: Cassell. £6.95)

 

This polite book was first published by Heinemann in 1922, when Maurice Baring was forty-eight years old, and covers roughly the first forty years of his life. He was already an established. author and by this time had some thirty titles published. As an autobiography, it is not altogether satisfactory; for though where he went, what he did, and who he met is detailed comprehensively, it is extremely difficult to gauge the character of the author except by implication. Accustomed as we are today to the flagellating, exposé, confessional approach to autobiography, the modern reader may well be disappointed if he is seeking a revelation of Baring’s inner self. He was reticent, modest, and discreet to such a degree that “finding” him is more likely in the memoirs of his friends. The occasional delicate hint is seized upon by the reader, mistakenly thinking that he has a genuine clue, but no, Baring remains elusive and private to the last page. The same may be said of nearly all the people that he writes about. They remain insubstantial, shadowy beings, all of them good, most of them beautiful, and – though often interesting – somehow bland in delineation.

NPG x2699; Maurice Baring by Howard Coster

Maurice Baring was as generous and charitable in print as he seems to have been in life, but reality has taught this reviewer at least that life is often otherwise. Laura Lovat writes in her “Postscript” that Baring had “the ability to dismiss from the mind that which makes life unendurable,” and unseemly behaviour or disagreeable traits of character in his friends and acquaintances may have been disregarded as such.

No-one who writes about Baring has an unkind word to say about him, although they sometimes poke a little gentle fun. Rarely does one explore the character of a man in the memories of his friends and find nothing but respect, deep affection, admiration and gratitude for his existence among them. Witty, erudite, gentle, loving and good are a few of the epithets that cling to this man’s shade. One wishes that one had known him and enjoyed his fun, his generosity, his scholarship and his friendship. He seems to have made his world (a world not without tragic event) a better place to share with him.

There are very obvious reasons, apart from Baring’s inherent good nature, why he doesn’t indulge in salacious tittle-tattle, but the absence of “gossip” is quite remarkable. He seems to have been denied by the fairies any trace of malice, irascibility, sarcasm, or spite. Churlishly, one longs for the merest suggestion of these human failings, for one likes to recognise in others that which is so patently present in oneself: His critical faculties are confined to the arts. Hence my “polite” by way of an introductory adjective. High refinement and good manners have ironed out any ugliness, vulgarity or the honest dirt so essential in any truthful representation of life.

Max Beerbohm touched on this aspect of Baring’s writing when he reviewed his play “The Grey Stocking” in the Saturday Review, June 6, 1908. “Mr. Baring gives us deliciously clever sketches of his characters; but he does not give us the full, deep portraits that are needed.” In an autobiography, it is those full, deep portraits that are necessary to compose the backcloth against which the subject, the author, emerges as a real, live person. The oblique reference to puppets in the title is somehow apposite.

The Puppet Show of Memory is a long book. The first half describes his childhood, boyhood, and early manhood up to his thirtieth year, and the second half is concerned with the subsequent ten years of his life which were mainly spent abroad. A shorter book might have been less uneven (indeed it would have made two quite satisfactory short books), but editors in 1922 were probably more indulgent than they are today.

Everybody’s nursery memories are fascinating, and these are no exception, recalling vividly the Victorian nursery that finally disappeared under the Blitz. Born in 1874, the infant Maurice opens his eyes in Berkeley Square, thus identifying him as belonging to the silver-spoon set. Favoured by fortune, the little chap is surrounded by the comforts of the juvenile upper classes which include not only books, pictures and pretty toys to play with, but a formidable array of servants to look after his every need. Protected by kind sisters and brothers, a devoted staff of housemaids, nursery maids, coachmen, governesses and loving parents, he grows up in a carefree atmosphere where playing and learning, looking and listening are balanced to a nicety.

Mingling as he does with crowned heads no less, and in a house not obviously short of a bob or two, it is remarkable that he doesn’t turn out to be an arrogant, selfish brat. But the poor and lowly don’t possess the monopoly of virtue, and this household seems to have been particularly loving and imaginative with only a wisp of green baize between upstairs and downstairs. There is no mention of Maurice’s ancestor, the Lutheran minister from Bremen, but perhaps a soupçon of German common sense percolated down to the childrens’ upbringing. (One would hardly expect him to touch on this German forebear, writing as he was in the aftermath of the First World War.)

Nursery life is beautifully and minutely described, and reading these early chapters is like looking at very old photographs. A montage of horses and carriages, lamplighters and muffin-men parade before the eye. Queen Victoria wearing an ermine tippet rides past in a gilded carriage and the sound of a barrel organ echoes in a vaguely Dickensian landscape of snow and brightly-lit shop-fronts, or fog and mysterious London streets. The safe haven of the nursery with its Landseers, Albert biscuits, and a strange refreshment called toast-in-water is carefully depicted.

Delicious treats and delightful presents punctuate lessons in the schoolroom. We should mention three in particular: At Cremers, a toyshop in Regent Street, Maurice, not yet old enough to sport “the dignity of trousers,” spies a train costing fifty shillings. He cannot imagine anyone ever having that amount of money and, typically, he admires without actually asking for it. But marvellously, it appears one day on the dining-room floor and confirms his belief in miracles. On another occasion, his Papa gives him a path in Devonshire and the little gate at the end of it! And then Chѐrie, his beloved Chѐrie, the French governess, brings him from Paris a puppet theatre. This was a “source of ecstasy” and the nameless French woman, about whom we long to know more, opens the rich vein in Maurice that was to be so creatively productive.

From Cherie must spring his love of French language and literature and his enjoyment of the theatre. Innumerable dramas are performed in this little Thѐâtre Français; and, in the schoolroom as well, homemade dramatics are produced with his elder sisters and younger brother. The older brothers, too, make occasional lordly entrances, home for the holidays. Fun, jokes and homemade entertainments interlace with splendiferous tea-parties in grand London houses, with visits to the pantomime, shopping expeditions, and walks in the park. Holidays are spent in the country, and this sunny, idyllic childhood is described with loving remembrance and tender detail.

Life at prep-school, where he is sent aged ten, is not quite so happy and there is a certain amount of teasing. Here Maurice realises the difference between games and play, comes across a particularly nasty form of punishment by electric shock, and wins a prize for his “garden.” His awakening love of the classics is reinforced by the Headmaster who reads aloud on Sunday afternoons. And he experiences the unutterable joy of going home for the holidays. ‘The seemingly unsatisfactory prep-school in Ascot is replaced by another at Eastbourne, but neither of these measures up to the glory and bliss of being at Eton, which he was to enjoy “from the first moment” he arrived.

The chronology in the book is rather difficult to follow, but presumably he spent four or five years at Eton, even as boys do nowadays. There can be no school that has had more words heaped on it than Eton. Maurice Baring adds his own tribute in a chapter brimming with the joyful discovery of books, friends, the pleasures of learning, and that happy state of physical and intellectual well-being, when a person is at one with his surroundings and pursuits, both serious and playful. This man had a genius for friendship; everyone remarks on it, and he made friendships at school that lasted all his life. His list of books read in 1890 would suffice many a modern schoolchild for a lifetime. French, English, Classics, German, History, Music and ‘‘a little Religion” are grist to his voracious appetite, and he performs well and wins many prizes. Even the dreaded mathematics, a sore trial to him at school and later, can be scraped through because he can “do” Euclid. His friends tumble across the pages amid laughter, practical jokes, boating on the river, feasts in the sock-shop, football matches, concerts and poetry readings. These happy years pass all too quickly and leave a deep impression on the adult Baring who recalls them so vividly twenty years and a World War later. The hours spent among the volumes in the school library blossom and bear fruit decades later in his books, verses, articles and plays.

After Eton, Germany, and many months spent with the kindly Timme family in Hildesheim with occasional forays to Heidelberg. Again, one is struck by the friendships made, the books read, and the languages mastered. Maurice Baring was well known for his linguistic skills and must have spoken at least half a dozen languages with great fluency. In Germany, he is exposed to Catholicism – and perhaps less interestingly, to Wagner. The latter results in several paragraphs of criticism, the former in a simple sentence. For one destined for the diplomatic service, the knowledge of foreign tongues was a sine qua non, but one wonders again if there wasn’t the faintest of tugs from the German roots. His reflections on the German character and the attitudes of the German bourgeoisie towards the British are interesting in the light of subsequent events. There follows a year at Cambridge and a spell in Oxford, both designed to assist his passing of the very stiff Foreign Office entrance exams. Mathematics and geography are regular stumbling blocks; but, at last, in 1898, he is accepted and we find him en poste in Paris.

The games and high-jinks that are a leit-motif throughout the book culminate in the Paris Chancery with a battle of ink-wells, wrecking carpets, curtains and wallpaper. But such jollities are offset by serious reading and frequent visits to the theatre. It is in Paris that Sarah Bernhardt captures Baring’s lifelong admiration with her performances of Hamlet and L’Aglon. Sarah Bernhardt is the only woman to receive detailed attention (indeed a whole chapter is devoted to her), perhaps because she was already a public figure.

After Paris, he serves in Copenhagen and Rome (picking up two more languages en route), but the desire to write proves stronger than the glamour of diplomatic life; and, though little has been published as yet, it is enough for Baring to wish to devote the rest of his life to literature.

By 1904, he is living in Russia, deep in the study of yet another language. With the help of his friend, Count Benckendorff, the Russian ambassador to London, he is made a correspondent for the Morning Post and sets out to cover the Russo-Japanese war. What a debonair traveller he is! Cigarettes and the tea basket are the only essentials by way of luggage for this war-correspondent at the turn of the century! The Russia that Baring describes on his seventeen-day journey from St. Petersburg to Kharbin must have disappeared as surely as the Victorian nursery, but people remain more or less the same and he falls in love with them there and then. At Mukden, he finds a Chinese-fairy-tale-pantomime of a place and attaches himself to a horse-battery of Trans-Baikalian Cossacks whose exploits he follows.

Against an ever-darkening sky, the war and the first rumblings of the Russian Revolution are described at length. These chapters contain some fine pictures of life with the army, the boredom and discomfort of camp-life, the sudden intense patches of calm between engagements, the sufferings and sublime courage of the men. He wonders if “war is to man what motherhood is to women – a burden, a source of untold suffering, and yet a glory.” At one point, he is publicly congratulated on losing his temper – apparently the first time he had manifested discontent! The collapse of the old order and the political upheaval in no way shake his love for the Russian people, and his extensive travels confirm and deepen that love.

Eighteen months spent in London result not only in the one and only edition of the North Street Gazette (“written for the rich by the poor”), a collaboration with Belloc and Raymond Asquith, but also in his becoming a Catholic. Really, one could shake him! – no preamble of whys or wherefores, but the simple statement that he was received into the Church on the eve of Candlemas, 1909, at the Brompton Oratory by Father Sebastian Bowden: “the only action in my life which I am quite certain I have never regretted.”

The final forty pages of the book trace his career as a correspondent covering the Balkan War up to the eve of the First World War. Many of his dearest friends were to perish in the mud and blood of that conflict; and “Saki,” Bron Herbert, and Raymond Asquith, to name but a few, are recalled with Baring’s customary generosity and admiration.

Asked why he spent so long in Russia (on and off for ten years). Baring replied: “because it interests me.” This interest in life permeates the whole book. Long it may be, but it is never dull. The simple style is a fine example of story-telling at its best. Although lacking in intimacy, the combination of subtlety and high-spirits produce a classic in its way and a book that the contemporary reader will be grateful to Cassell for re-printing.

One regrets three things: there is no photograph of the author; there is no genealogical table; and there is an error on the copyright page concerning the first date of publication. But one forgives all in the pleasures of discovery, albeit only partial, of this dear man.

 

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