James Lees-Milne

Elite Syncopation

The Parting of Ways: A Personal Account of the Thirties


Peter Owen 223pp £10.50 order from our bookshop

Shiela Grant Duff is a natural rebel. She was born an upper class girl just within the pre-1914 generation. Both her grandfathers had been Liberal MPs and distinguished public servants – Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff one time Governor of Madras, and Sir John Lubbock, later lst Lord Avebury. The last was an outstanding philanthropist and entomologist. Amongst other benefactions he introduced the Bank Holidays Act of 1871. For twelve years he kept a tame wasp whose death was recorded in the newspapers. One of Miss Grant Duff’s grandmothers was a Stanley of Alderley which may account for her provocative intelligence.

This gifted girl’s childhood was conditioned by tragedy. At her birth in 1913 her Grant Duff grandfather died. The following year war with Germany broke out. Her father was killed. Her mother’s two brothers were killed. Still her upbringing was cushioned by the comparative comforts and affluence of her class. The standards of her upbringing at home were those of the old-fashioned British élite. The first break with this exclusive tradition was education at St Paul’s Girls School (advanced), and matriculation in Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford in 1931. Here she broke away from the conventional ambit of her girl contemporaries, deb dances and country house weekends. She made friends with intellectual young men and women, not solely from the upper or even middle classes. Amongst these clever young people were Richard Crossman, Michael Foot, Douglas Jay and Geronwy Rees. She immediately fell under their political influence. This was the time of the slump, unemployment and hunger marches, events which profoundly stirred her Socialist sympathies. While still at Oxford she joined the Labour Club and the Communist October Club. She concurrently developed a totally unnecessary feeling of guilt about her origins.

By the late 1920s the Weimar Republic had become the El Dorado of English intellectual youth. In 1932 Shiela Grant Duff went to Germany with the glamorous Geronwy with whom for several years she was infatuated. Her relations with him ended when he fell under the spell of Guy Burgess, whom she could not stomach, not on account of his political views but of his squalid living and louche companions, for Shiela remained a squeamish girl to whom depravity was distasteful. Geronwy however makes no mention of Shiela in A Chapter of Accidents.

During the German visit the Nazi party was gathering strength and power. The rise of Hitler filled Shiela with disgust and apprehension. She went to Austria, France and Russia, refusing to recognize the horrors of Sovietism and determined to see everything in Russia through rose-tinted spectacles. She remained on the defensive of all things Russian well into Stalin’s grisly reign.

Deteriorating events on the continent determined her to become a newspaper correspondent, and until the outbreak of the Second World War this was her profession. She apprenticed herself to Edgar Ansel Mowrer, the clear-headed correspondence of the Chicago Daily News, and later sat at the feet of Hubert Ripka, the Czechoslovakian patriot. In 1935 she covered the Saar plebiscite and stood, with a pistol in her pocket, within spitting distance of Hitler while he delivered a ranting speech. There were a few weeks in 1936 when she acted bear-leader to Jawaharlal Nehru during his visit to England and became profoundly affected by the philosophy of that mystical, hesitant and bewildered pacifist. In 1939 she covered the calvary of Czechoslovakia, having by now entered the circle of Winston Churchill whom she briefed with her inside knowledge of that luckless republic.

Perhaps the most historic, as it is the most interesting association of her life was with Adam von Trott, the enigmatical but deeply patriotic young German, with whom she made friends at Oxford, and whose proposal of marriage she turned down because of her love of Geronwy Rees. Nevertheless there ensued a prolonged love-disagreement relationship between the two until the war separated them for ever. Shiela Grant Duff, like the majority of the intellectual leftists of the Thirties could not, or would not dissociate Germans from Nazis. What Trott described as her ‘blind denunciation of Germany’s ills’, by which he meant Nazi misdemeanours, was in his view a reiteration of the accursed nationalism which had been responsible for the First War. Nor was he altogether wrong since it was Anglo-American insistence upon unconditional surrender which led to his own tragic martyrdom.

The portrait of the author which takes shape from The Parting of Ways is of an attractive, likeable, earnest young woman, sincerely and passionately opposed to tyranny, so long as it is tyranny of the right. Too often however her judgements were governed by her heart rather than her head. For instance to say, as she did in 1936 that: ‘All I hated in Nazi Germany was at this very moment going on in British India,’ and to compare Lord Linlithgow’s vice-royalty with government by Hitler, shows unbridled prejudice. To conclude that the Vatican was in favour of Nazism was totally wrong (as Mr Anthony Rhodes has lately proved beyond dispute). To refuse to look at photographs of the Red atrocities when invited to do so by Franco’s officers in Malaga was a sign of gross partisanship. The political convictions of Miss Grant Duff and the group she allied herself to in the Thirties may not have been as harmful as those of Guy Burgess and his little gang, whom she found ‘somehow cynical and amoral’ – hardly an overstatement – yet they have been responsible for an immense amount of subsequent mischief. Extremist views of one generation beget lunatic acts by the next, and criminal acts by the one after. ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter