Paul Verlaine, 1921
Tennyson: Aspects of His Life, Character, and Poetry, 1923
Byron: The Last Journey, 1924
Some People, 1927 (sketches)
The Development of English Biography, 1927
Sir Arthur Nicolson, Bart., First Lord Carnock, 1930 (also known as Portrait of a Diplomat)
People and Things, 1931 (sketches)
Curzon: The Last Phase, 1934
King George V, 1952
Journey to Java, 1957
Diaries and Letters, 1966-1968 (3 volumes)
Vita and Harold: The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, 1992 (Nigel Nicolson, editor)
Sir Harold Nicolson, a distinguished diplomat, historian, journalist, and biographer, was born in Tehran. He spent his childhood years in the Balkans and Near East. In later years he also traveled extensively, though he only resided in one place: the British Foreign Office. Nicolson received his education at the Wellington School and Oxford University. After subsequently studying abroad in Paris, he entered the British Foreign Office in 1909 and was attached to the embassies at Madrid in 1910 and Constantinople in 1911.
In 1913 Nicolson married the Hon. Victoria Mary Sackville-West, daughter of the third Lord Sackville. Their marriage lasted forty-nine years and was one of the most unique nuptials of all time. By mutual consent, both were continually adulterous, and both were more homosexual than heterosexual. Sackville-West had affairs with Rosamund Grosvenor, Violet Trefusis, and Virginia Woolf, as well as a heterosexual tryst with Geoffrey Scott. Nicolson had a lifelong relationship with Raymond Mortimer and shorter liaisons with Pierre Lacretelle, John Strick, and James Pope-Hennessy. Neither felt jealousy or resentment about the other’s sexual adventures. Vita (Victoria’s nickname) and Harold Nicolson had two children. Benedict was born in 1914; Nigel was born in 1917. Like her husband, Vita Sackville-West became a distinguished author, publishing such works as The Dragon in Shallow Waters (1921), Seducers in Ecuador (1924), The Edwardians (1930), All Passion Spent (1931), The Dark Island (1934), Country Notes in Wartime (1940), Grand Canyon (1942), In Your Garden (1951), Even More for Your Garden (1958), and Profile of Dogs (1961).
Harold Nicolson was the greatest diplomat of his generation; he was the confidant of Lloyd George, Arthur Balfour, and Lord Curzon and the adviser of Georges Clemenceau, Eleuthérios Venizélos, and Woodrow Wilson. After World War I Nicolson became a member of the British delegation to the 1919 peace conference. While in charge of the British embassy in Berlin in 1928, Nicolson analyzed the gradual resurgence of Germany. He retired from diplomacy in 1929, largely because Sackville-West hated his long absences. Subsequently, he was involved with Lord Beaverbrook’s newspapers and with Oswald Mosley’s New Party and with Mosley’s best-selling novel, Public Faces (1932).
Nicolson was an elitist, and he demanded a high degree of savoir faire from his friends. He did not believe in God. In politics he disliked the fake cordiality that a candidate must assume. He was a member of the House of Commons from 1935 to 1945 and served a year as a junior minister in Winston Churchill’s wartime government. Nicolson could have risen to high office had he had the necessary stamina. During the war years both Vita and Harold carried small containers of poison to consume should England lose the war. At the height of the German bombardment of London, Vita told Harold that she would kill herself if he were killed.
Nicolson is best known as a biographer. In The Development of English Biography, he distinguishes between “pure” and “impure” biography and outlines the origins of English biography. He notes that impure biography results from one or more of three things: the desire to celebrate the dead; the desire to compose the life of an individual as an illustration of some extraneous conception; or the undue subjectivity of the writer. James Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson and John Lockhart’s biography of Sir Walter Scott are regarded by Nicolson as remarkable achievements. Lockhart, says Nicolson, should be considered second only to Boswell in the art of biography. Nicolson believes that behind Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) lies a fervent commitment to intellectual honesty, a calm conviction that thought and reason are the most important components of human nature.
Nicolson wrote biographies of literary, public, and political figures. His 1952 biography of King George V won him a peerage. His best book, however, is the humorous Some People, a series of stories about a French snob, an aesthete, a phony expert on foreign affairs, and an English lord. Nicolson’s biographies of George Gordon, Lord Byron; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; and Algernon Charles Swinburne have their limitations. In Byron: The Last Journey, Nicolson feels that Byron was too neurotic to act decisively while in Greece. Nicolson’s biography of Tennyson, entitled Tennyson: Aspects of His Life, Character, and Poetry, delineates a dual Tennyson: Tennyson the romantic lyricist and Tennyson the Victorian moralizer. Nicolson discerns the essential Tennyson to be a “morbid and unhappy mystic,” the hero of such poems as The Two Voices and Maud, the latter considered as the last defiant flash of the denizen of the Lincolnshire Wolds. Nicolson’s Swinburne is thorough but flawed by his conviction that Swinburne was an essentially stupid poet whose sources of inspiration were few.
Sir Harold Nicolson remained active until Vita Sackville-West’s death in 1962. When Nicolson died at eighty-two, his ashes were buried, according to his own instructions, in the churchyard of old Sissinghurst Castle in Kent rather than in Lady Nicolson’s crypt at Withyham.