The Past Revisited: The Autobiographies
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“Far off in earliest remembered childhood I can overhear myself repeating the words ‘Watercress Well’. I am kneeling by an old stone well-head: my mother is standing beside me and we are looking in the water”. This is the first of the two evocative memories that Sassoon recounts in the Prelude which opens The Old Century and Seven More Years (1938).1 In the second he again hears his own voice: “This time it asks a question. ‘What will the seeds be like when they come up?’ I am standing beside my mother, who is making a watercolour sketch of a man sowing”. These two earliest memories symbolize the purpose of the book, in which the author means “to tell whither the water journeyed from its source, and how the seed came up”. This seems to suggest that Sassoon seriously intended to reinvestigate his youth in an attempt to come to a better understanding of his own personality, without making the mistakes he confessed to towards the end of the Sherston-trilogy, when he wrote that over-simplification had made self-analysis impossible. But if ever this was his intention, he does not carry it through. As in the Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Sassoon shies away from an objective investigation of the late-Victorian and Edwardian Age and his own youth.
KeywordsProtest Action Country House Prose Writing Happy Youth Happy Past
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- 1.All page references in this section are to the Faber & Faber paperback edition (with an introduction by Michael Thorpe), London, 1968.Google Scholar
- 2.Brian Finney, The Inner I. British Autobiography of the Twentieth Century (London, 1985), p. 180.Google Scholar
- 3.Though we are told about some of his mother’s friends (like Nellie Gosse and Helen ‘Wirgie’ Wirgman), Sassoon remains silent on the subjects of friends of his own age.Google Scholar
- 4.All in all, some fifty novelists, poets, painters and musicians are mentioned by name.Google Scholar
- 5.It was later reprinted in Pater’s Miscellaneous Studies (London, 1895), pp. 172–196. Page references in the text are to the 1907 Macmillan edition.Google Scholar
- 6.In September 1924 Sassoon had also visited Edingthorpe. The notes in his diary are extensive, and it is obvious that he used them in writing this episode (cf. D3, 201–202).Google Scholar
- 7.T.S. Eliot, East Coker, 11. 18–22. It is not inconceivable that The Old Century was a minor source of inspiration for Eliot. The book was published by Faber and Faber (where Eliot had been an editor since 1925) in September 1938. The exact date of the composition of Eliot’s poem cannot be established, but “The first reference to East Coker is in a letter from John Hayward […] dated February 1940”; cf. Helen Gardner, The Composition of ‘Four Quartets’ (London, 1978), p. 16.Google Scholar
- 8.Walter Pater, Imaginary Portraits (London, 1890), pp. 27–8.Google Scholar
- 9.Gerald Monsman, Walter Pater’s Art of Autobiography (New Haven, 1980), p. 37.Google Scholar