Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man - Siegfried Sassoon 3 – 3.5 stars

On the one hand Siegfried Sassoon’s _The Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man_ (the first volume in a trilogy)can be seen as a paen to the idyllic way of life of a country gentleman before the war to end all wars destroyed any pretence to concepts of chivalry and gallant action. On the other hand it can be seen as an indictment (knowing or otherwise) of the generally indolent and purposeless lives of the idle rich before an entire generation was nearly decimated. Either way it is a well-written and interesting picture of Edwardian life seen from the point of view of someone definitely in the upstairs portion of the upstairs/downstairs equation.

George Sherston (a semi-autobiographical stand-in for Sassoon) is the ‘hero’ of our tale, a young upper-middle class/lower-aristocratic orphan being raised by his well-meaning and generally absent aunt in the idyllic English countryside. His main concerns are cricket and fox hunting, and he is saved from seeming to be an utter upper class prig by virtue of his relatively shy nature and well-meaning intentions (not to mention his fairly impecuniary status compared to most other members of his social circle). Young Sherston also seems to take quite some time to grow into himself, and his longstanding feelings of being a virtual outsider in his own society, exiled to live in the far-flung environs of his aunt’s estate while the rest of the fashionable world seems to mostly pass him by, also allows him to be a fairly sympathetic narrative voice for readers who are also looking in on his world from the outside.

Sherston is something of a loner, his education being mostly the result of ‘home schooling’ under a tutor and his university experience cut short when he decides he’d rather play cricket and follow the hunt than take a degree. The best friend of Sherston’s youth is probably his groom and all-around gentleman’s gentleman Tom Dixon who is the primary influence in making young George into a “sporting man”. His solitary life does not seem to be broken up by much companionship of his own age until he meets Stephen Colwood, the son of a rector and fellow enthusiast in both the hunt and the related point-to-point races they spawn. The two soon grow quite close, aiding each other in their attempts to ensure they come up to the requirements of a model huntsman (which really in their case means horseman since their primary concern is having a good piece of horseflesh with which to jump over fences and race across the countryside) and take part in the best outings of the season. The only other significant character in these memoirs (aside from genial old Aunt Evelyn who remains mostly a passive and amiable figure in the background) is the enigmatic Denis Milden, a young fox hunter hero-worshipped by Sherston in his younger days who eventually reappears as a Master of the Hunt whose friendship and approval George prizes above almost all else. Peppered throughout all of these reminiscences, however, are a host of amusing and varied secondary characters who make up the bulk of the hunting society and rural village community that are Sherston’s entire world.

So far it sounds pretty priggish and boring, doesn’t it? I have to admit that there isn’t exactly a lot of high octane action, but Sassoon keeps things moving as each chapter highlights various events of signal importance to young Sherston’s growth as both a horseman and a man, from his initial successful cricket matches and his time spent with various hunting groups, to his purchase of his first excellent “piece of horseflesh” and eventual success at the all-important point-to-point races. Ultimately everything leads to the final two sections and his enlistment in the army as WWI looms unexpectedly from out of the quiet pastoral background in which he has been snuggly swaddled up to this point. The latter segments are likely where most reader’s main interest will lie (as well as in the next volume of the trilogy that makes up the memoirs of George Sherston’s experiences as an Infantry officer at the front) in order to get some insight into how a relatively feckless young man could grow into a soldier and leader in one of the most crushing episodes of the modern era. This is probably especially the case given the book’s semi-autobiographical nature and Sassoon’s place as one of the premier War Poets of the day, not to mention his position as a famous agitator for peace while still a soldier (of course we must always keep in mind that there is not a one-to-one correlation of Sherston to Sassoon regardless of the shared experiences they may have had). The early segments are certainly still of interest, though, for they do a good job of showing us the kind of inexperienced young men, whose heads were filled with thoughts of gallantry and were raised in days of relatively placid complacence, who were ultimately called upon to sacrifice themselves in the midst of horror and chaos. I even found myself carried along with Sherston’s own anxiety mixed with expectation as he ran his first great point-to-point race and was holding my breath until the very end. He really is such a likable young man that you can’t help but be infected by his inner thoughts and concerns, no matter how trivial they appear when you examine them from a wider context. Sherston himself, as narrator, is distinctly aware of this as he remembers his worries on the eve of a race:
Anyone who cares to do so is at liberty to make fun of the trepidations which a young man carries about with him and conceals. But there is a risk in such ridicule. As I remember and write, I grin, but not unkindly, at my distant and callow self and the absurdities which constitute his chronicle. To my mind the only thing that matters is the resolve to do something...even though [these thoughts] are only about buying a racing-cap.

When he first gets to the front, Sherston finds that he is one of the lucky ones, posted as Transportation Officer for his platoon and thus stationed behind the trenches. Still, he has to experience the hardships of army life and quietly, almost without comment in the memoirs, he experiences the deaths of his best friend Stephen Colwood and mentor Tom Dixon (the latter having joined up even though he was nearing fifty). All of the tragedies he witnesses are treated in this way, matter of fact; they are something to be regretted, but not something that one has any real power to change. It is in this context that, while on leave in England, Sherston ponders what has become of his life stating simply: “…I began to realize that my past was wearing a bit thin. The War seemed to have made up its mind to obliterate all those early adventures of mine. Point-to-point cups shone, but without conviction. And Dixon was dead…” That simple final statement of fact seems to contain in it a world of loss, expressed in the most austere manner possible. Sherston soon discovers that whether it is terrifying danger or mind-numbing boredom, the only way to deal with the horrors of his new life is to forget what he had left behind to “…try and feel secretly heroic, and to look back on the old life as pointless and trivial.”

One of the most feeling, though still poignantly understated, episodes is when Sherston loses a friend he had only met after enlisting and with whom he had managed to get posted to the same battalion:
Once the chaplain’s words were obliterated by a prolonged burst of machine-gun fire; when he had finished a trench-mortar ‘cannister’ fell a few hundred yards away, spouting the earth up with a crash. A sack was lowered into a hole in the ground. The sack was Dick. I knew Death then.

It is this constant, trudging experience, even expectation, of death and loss, that begins to form a change in Sherston. The happy-go-lucky cricketer and huntsman is beginning to appreciate some of the darker realities of the wider world outside of his limited and parochial experience. Men under his charge die instantly and largely without comment, or quietly suffer a life of indignity and squalor in the name of a country whose concerns and existence seem more than a world away. It is in the midst of these harsh experiences that we begin to see a true echo of the feelings of Sassoon the writer come forth most boldly in Sherston the character. He remembers a period in the early days when he could still feel that…”the War was inevitable and justifiable. Courage remained a virtue. And that exploitation of courage, if I may be allowed to say a thing so obvious, was the essential tragedy of the War, which, as everyone now agrees, was a crime against humanity.” The hardening of George Sherston’s heart has begun and when the opportunity comes for him to escape his cushy posting in favour of joining his comrades at the front he jumps at it. This quiet and gentle young man has been so desensitized by his quiet losses that he has reached the point where he could cold-bloodedly decide to go “…to the trenches with the intention of trying to kill someone. It was my idea of getting a bit of my own back.” Not a feeling we are likely to find surprising, or all that blameworthy given his circumstances, but even then Sherston is conflicted and we are left with a final sight of the young officer standing watch across no-man’s land as a bird sings to the sunrise on Easter morning: “Standing in that dismal ditch, I could find no consolation in the thought that Christ was risen. I sploshed back to the dug-out to call the others up for ‘stand-to’.”