‘My dearest Siegfried’: The Egremont Sassoon Papers


Poet and author Siegfried Sassoon was a prolific letter writer and throughout his life maintained a close friendship and correspondence with his mother Georgiana Theresa Thornycroft, known affectionately as ‘Ash’. A recently catalogued set of Sassoon papers, MS Add.9877, acquired by the Library from his biographer Max Egremont, includes a large series of letters from Ash to Sassoon spanning several decades until her death in 1947. The letters cover the departure of Sassoon’s brother Hamo for the First World War and his subsequent death at Gallipoli, along with key moments of Sassoon’s career, revealing intimate details of his personal and professional life.

Over 200 letters from Ash to Sassoon survive in the archive, including letters on the reception of Sassoon’s work and others giving insights into his writing process. The letters also cover aspects of Sassoon’s personal life, including his relationships with artist Gabriel Atkin and socialite Stephen Tennant, his marriage and separation from Hester Gatty, and his dramatic falling out with poet and author Robert Graves.

In 1929, as Graves’ Good-Bye to All That was about to be released, Sassoon learnt that Graves had included unfavourable passages in the book and planned to include a poem which Sassoon had given him in confidence. In a number of letters to her son, Ash alludes to the incident which had put Sassoon ‘in a bottomless rage’, and speaks of her dislike of that ‘cad’ Graves.1

In a letter of 1915 she describes her upset as Sassoon’s brother Hamo embarked for war. Hamo was commissioned in the Royal Engineers and was mortally wounded at Gallipoli in November 1915. Three letters from Hamo to his mother, written while on active service, describe his passage to Malta, army life, and his activities with the Royal Engineers.  News of Hamo’s death reached Sassoon at Litherland Army Camp from which he wrote to Ash, describing his incredulity at the news: ‘Everything I write seems futile. My brain won’t work.’2

Theresa Sassoon’s letters to her son Siegfried also reveal their shared passion for literature, poetry, music and art. A member of the artistic Thornycroft family, Theresa illustrated many of her letters with sketches and doodles, from pictures of her cats to a self-portrait, skipping happily along while reading Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, clearly over-the-moon with his success.

Sketches are also included in Sassoon’s letters to his wife Hester which feature in the archive. Following a series of homosexual love affairs, most notably with socialite and ‘Bright Young Thing’ Stephen Tennant, Sassoon met Hester Gatty in June 1933 and proposed the following November. The couple separated, however, eight years after the birth of their son George in 1936 and the letters highlight the ups and downs of their subsequent relationship. One letter to Hester dated 1957 opens with a poem beginning ‘O great grand-daughter of that merchant Morrison’, with an accompanying sketch of a figure with a tiara. In another of January 1966, however, the elderly Sassoon tells her of his poor health, emphatically ordering Hester not to visit.3

In later years Sassoon converted to Catholicism, finding solace in religion and his ‘unconditional surrender’ to God. His friendship with the Benedictine nun Dame Felicitas Corrigan is recorded in a set of press cuttings in the archive, along with reviews of his prose books and cuttings of his lesser known writings for the press. The archive also includes tributes to Sassoon following his death in 1967. Notable are the typed reminiscences by his son George, who lovingly recalled his childhood and Sassoon’s terrible motoring skills – Sassoon, while one of the finest of the Great War poets, was a notoriously bad driver.

 

A full catalogue of the archive is available at MS Add.9877: Egremont Sassoon Papers.

 

References:

1MS Add.9877/1/1/105, MS Add.9877/1/1/119 and MS Add.9877/1/1/126.Go back.

2MS Add.9877/1/4/1/4-5.Go back.

3MS Add.9877/1/6/1/2 and MS Add.9877/1/6/1/6.Go back.

4MS Add.9877/1/3.Go back.

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