Nicolson was born on 21 November 1886, in Tehran, part of Persia at the time. He spent much of his youth either abroad, where his diplomat father was posted, or at the Irish estates of his mother’s relatives. He was educated at a preparatory school, The Grange, then Wellington College and Balliol College, Oxford. After a period in France, improving his languages, he joined the diplomatic service, being posted to Madrid briefly and then Constantinople. He married Victoria Mary (Vita) Sackville-West in 1913, and in 1915 they brought Long Barn, a semi-derelict medieval farmstead in Kent where they would live for 15 years before moving to Sissinghurst.
With the outbreak of war, Nicolson was recalled to the Foreign Office; and through the war years he was mostly occupied on matters relating to neutral powers. He was one of the chief draftsmen of the Balfour declaration, which committed Britain to supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In the war’s aftermath, Nicolson was attached to the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, where he served on a number of Balkan committees. He established a reputation for analysis and sound judgement. Subsequently, he was appointed private secretary to Sir Eric Drummond, the first secretary-general of the League of Nations, but within months had been recalled to London. He went on to be involved mostly in Middle East issues.
By this time, Nicolson had embarked on a parallel career, writing biographies of literary figures, including of Paul Verlaine, Tennyson, Byron and Swinburne. His civil service career, though, did not proceed smoothly. Having been promoted to First Secretary and then Counsellor, he was posted to Tehran as Chargé d'affaires, but was recalled in 1927 and demoted for criticising his minister. Another posting, to Berlin, followed, and another promotion, but in 1929 he resigned. He worked at the Evening Standard briefly, and edited Action, a newspaper put out by Oswald Mosely’s New Party. He also stood, unsuccessfully, as an MP for the party in the 1931 General Election. Soon after Moseley formed his fascist party Nicolson ceased to support him, and, thereafter, always regretted his earlier involvement.
In 1935, Nicolson stood for Parliament, successfully this time, as a National Labour Party member (for Leicester West). He remained an MP for ten years, when he lost his seat. He was never an especially remarkable politician, though he was well-respected as a back-bencher for his knowledge of foreign affairs. He was, however, a talented writer and journalist. Because of the remarkable relationship with his wife (which was very close while allowing affairs with same-sex lovers) and the fact that he moved in high political circles and was intimate with the Bloomsbury Group, he had plenty to observe and write about. With Vita, he developed one of the country’s most famous gardens at Sissinghurst (now run by the National Trust). He was appointed Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1953, as a reward for writing the official biography of George V. Vita died in 1962, and Nicolson in 1968. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, Spartacus, Mantex, or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required).
As a young man, Nicolson kept a diary intermittently, and a little bit more regularly during the Paris Peace Conference. This latter he later edited for publication by Constable as Peacemaking (1933). However, he did not start to keep a regular daily diary until 1 January 1930; from then on, he kept it continuously for over 30 years, until 1964, amassing some three million words. According to his son, Nigel Nicolson, editor of the diaries, he would type up the previous day’s diary entry every morning after breakfast using both sides of loose sheets of quarto paper. The sheets were then filed and stored in a steel cabinet at Sissinghurst, never to be re-read or shown to anyone until Nigel, in the 1960s, suggested editing them for publication. Collins brought out a first volume - Diaries and Letters 1930-39 - in 1966; a second volume - Diaries and Letters 1939-45 - in 1967; and, posthumously, a third volume - Diaries and Letters 1945-1966 - in 1968.
Although Nicolson is well-remembered for his relationship with Sackville-West and their Sissinghurst garden, his enduring literary legacy, without doubt, is the diaries. Since the three-volume edition in the 1960s, there have been various further editions and collections some of which have included pre-1930 diary material. In 2009, Faber Finds republished the original 1960s editions - see Of war and of sowing.
A few years earlier, though, in a 2004, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (a publisher set up by Nigel Nicolson but sold to Orion in 1991) had published a one volume edition, Diaries and Letters 1907-1964 (some pages can be read at Amazon). In an editorial note, Nigel Nicolson observes that still only one twentieth part of all his father’s diaries had ever been published. And then, at the start of his introduction, he explains why he thinks the diaries have been so acclaimed over the years: ‘First, he had led a very active life in diplomacy, politics and literature, and knew, some intimately, the leading figures in all three professions. Therefore his diaries and letters form a record of considerable value to historians and biographers. Secondly, he had unusual powers of observation and recollection, specially of conversations. He recorded not just what people said, but their tone of voice, their gestures, their clothes, possessions and houses, all clues to their characters.’
Here are several extracts taken form the original 1960s volumes.
31 January 1932
‘There is a dead and drowned mouse in the lily-pool. I feel like that mouse - static, obese and decaying. Viti is calm, comforting and considerate. And yet (for have I not been reading a batch of insulting press-cuttings?) life is a drab and dreary thing. I had a great chance. I have missed it. I have made a fool of myself in every respect.
Surely there was a time I might have trod
The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God? [Oscar Wilde lines]
Very glum. Discuss finance. Viti keeps on saying that we have got enough to go on with. But when one goes into it, that enough represents only two months. I must get a job. Yet all the jobs which pay humiliate. And the decent jobs do not pay. Come back to Long Barn. Arrange my books sadly. Weigh myself sadly. Have put on eight pounds. Feel ashamed of myself, my attainments, and my character. Am I a serious person at all? Vita thinks I could make £2,000 by writing a novel. I don’t. The discrepancy between these two theories causes me some distress of mind.’
30 January 1936
‘Dr Broadbent has telephoned to say that B.M. [Lady Sackville] cannot live through the day. Vita goes down by the 12 noon train and I promise to follow as soon as I have put off all my engagements. Reach Brighton at 2 p.m. and go to White Lodge. Go straight up to B. M.’s room and find that she has died some three minutes before, quite painlessly and without recovering consciousness. Take Vita into the other room. Rhind [Lady Sackville’s secretary] is much upset but behaves well. The solicitor arrives and also the priest. The latter is disgusting and refuses to have a service over B.M. if she is to be cremated. She has left a pathetic little typewritten notice saying that she was to be cremated and the ashes flung into the sea. Vita is much harassed and shattered, but inwardly, I think, relieved.’
28 December 1941
‘Feeling much better. I do a Spectator article on keeping diaries, in which I lay down the rule that one should write one’s diary for one’s great-grandson. I think that is a correct rule. The purely private diary becomes too self-centred and morbid. One should have a remote, but not too remote, audience.
The Russians continue to nibble at the German lines. In Libya we are ‘mopping up’, but it is not clear what has really happened. The public seem to have lost all interest in Libya.
26 December 1942
‘A cold slate-grey day. I write an article on Parliament in 1942. I weed the lime-border in the afternoon. Viti is at work on her poem The Garden. She is finding it very difficult, and alternates between depression and elation.
Darlan has been assassinated by a Frenchman with an Italian mother. Giraud says he hopes de Gaulle will join him.’
26 December 1943
‘We go over to Long Barn. I walk sadly in the damp fog thinking of all the happy days of youth passed among those poplars and meadows. Fifteen years was Long Barn my dear home, and now it is to be sold to a film magnate called Soskin. It is looking very pretty. Viti and I rather sadly measure furniture to see what we shall take to Sissinghurst. Afterwards the refugee children sing carols for us. [Long Barn was used during the war for displaced children.]
I feel depressed by the war and the coming revolution and the loss of my past life and values. Even Europe, which I knew and loved well, has ceased to be important. Les Scythes ont conquis le monde.’
21 November 1946
‘I reach the age of sixty. I talk at Chatham House on ‘Peacemaking, 1919 and 1946’. It goes very well. There are many questions - all sensible. I then return to the Travellers and have a drink with Victor Cunard and Moley Sargent. I come back with Victor, who has taken a house immediately opposite this bloody tenement.
I return across the road, conscious of my sixty years. Until about five years ago I detected no decline at all in physical vigour and felt as young as I did at thirty. In the last five years, however, I am conscious that my physical powers are on the decline. I am getting slightly deaf. Intellectually I observe no decline: I can write with the same facility, which is perhaps a fault. I do not notice that my curiosity, my interests or my powers of enjoyment and amusement have declined at all. What is sad about becoming sixty is that one loses all sense of adventure. It is unlikely now that the impossible will happen. I am very well aware, moreover, that I have not achieved either in the literary or the political world that status which my talents and hard work might seem to justify. In literature, the explanation is simple: although hard-working, I am not intelligent enough to write better than I do. In politics, it has been due partly to lack of push and even of courage, and partly to a combination of unfortunate events (Mosley, National Labour, my being identified with the Ministry of Information at a bad time, and so on). There was a moment in 1938 when it looked as if I had a political future, but that moment passed. I failed to seize it.
Now how much do I mind all this? I have no desire for office or power in any sense. I know quite honestly that if I were offered the Embassy in Paris or Rome, I should hesitate to accept, not only because Viti would hate it, but because I have no wish to be prominent and grand. But of course I am disappointed by my literary ill-success. Nor do I quite relish the idea that my reputation rests not so much upon my political or literary work, as upon my journalistic and broadcasting work. I regret all this quite faintly. I see, on the other hand, a long life behind me, dashed with sunshine and gay with every colour. And to have three people in my life such as Viti and Ben and Nigel is something greater than all material success. For if happiness is in fact the aim of life, then assuredly I have had forty years of happiness, from the day when as a little boy I walked down to the station at Wellington College with a surge of freedom in my heart. Since that hour of liberation I have had a wonderful succession of delights and interests. For which I thank my destiny.’
The Diary Junction