My dear Edith… letters from the Bloomsbury Set and Bright Young Things

on Wednesday, 18 July 2018. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

Each July I set myself a challenge – to find documents in our archive that support the GCSE and A-level topics studied by students who come to us on work placements.

The topics are wide-ranging and on the face of it have little to do with our wonderful county. But Wiltshire folk have always found themselves involved in, if not at the centre of, world events.
Among the topics studied by students who have been with us this year are: the Crusades; Henry II; Black American history and Germany 1889-1989. That was just one A-level student.

At GCSE most students tend to study medicine through time, often with a more in-depth look at battlefield medicine in the First World War. Other topics that our students have studied include Weimar and Nazi Germany; international relations during the Cold War; settling of the American west; American politics and civil rights plus a bit of King John and the Magna Carta and a touch of Elizabethan politics, trade and war with Spain thrown in for good measure.

And yes – we can produce documents that relate to all of these topics. The Wiltshire and Swindon Archive is truly global in its coverage.

This year though, the particular challenge was finding collections that referenced the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany. We searched using a variety of key words including ‘Hitler’. And it was this search that yielded some interesting results – letters written to author and diarist Edith Olivier by friends who were travelling in Europe in the 1930s or who had strong opinions about the politics of Germany and Italy.

We are privileged to have Edith’s archive as she was an inveterate diary and letter writer and our collection contains fascinating letters, notes and postcards from her large circle of friends who, post First World War, included nationally and internationally famous writers, artists, socialites and aristocracy associated with the ‘Bright Young Things’ and the ‘Bloomsbury Set’.

Three letters in this collection were particularly exciting – two were written in 1933 (WSA 982/116) and the third in 1938 (WSA 982/125), and all referred to events and people that are now key to our understanding of the interwar period.

Poet Siegfried Sassoon was a close friend of Edith’s and they wrote to each other regularly. A letter from him dated 28 February, 1933, highlights his fear that another war is imminent. He wrote it the day after the Reichstag – the German parliament building – was set on fire and a month after Hitler had been sworn in as German Chancellor.

Sassoon writes: “How miraculously opportune my poor little poems will be at this moment when there is all this horrible war feeling in the air. Everything seems leading up to a European war… & Hitlerism appears to be a very dangerous & explosive remedy for unrest!”

His letter also alludes to the political disagreements at home with some factions supporting the work of the League of Nations and others believing the organisation, formed in the aftermath of the First World War, was doomed to failure.

Sassoon goes on to say: “The Devil must rub his hands when he sees Winston baiting poor old Lansbury, who after all is on the right side, though he may be a bit silly.”

Lansbury was George Lansbury who in October 1932 became leader of the Labour Party. He was known for his belief in pacifism and unilateral disarmament; so it is interesting to read Sassoon’s support of Lansbury’s position. Sassoon is pessimistic about the future: “I have been thinking about it a lot, & I can’t help feeling that, given a bit of bad luck & people losing their heads, another war might be started just as the Reichstag has been set on fire. Isn’t it strange how some people seem definitely to hate the League of Nations for trying to safeguard the world?”

The second letter from 1933 was written by composer William Walton and once again mentions Hitler. But a little bit of research suggests that this reference is in the context of Oswald Mosley – leader of the newly formed British Union of Fascists.

Walton was a prolific British composer whose early career was supported by renowned poet Edith Sitwell and her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell.

In this letter dated 13 March, 1933, Walton is living and working in Switzerland and mentions that he is supposed to be writing a “Fascist Hymn” for ‘Tom’.

Walton writes: “I know practically nothing about the Mosley-Guin affair. It sounds not too pleasant & not a little hysterical. I think Tom is a better D[on] Juan than a Hitler myself especially since I’m supposed to be writing a “Fascist Hymn” for him. Osbert is supposed to be writing the words, but judging by the doggerel he has sent me to set, he is just as uninspired as I am, so I’ve done nothing about it.”

Research shows that Oswald Mosley was known as Tom and it might be that the ‘Mosley-Guin affair’ refers to the scandal of the day – Diana, one of the Mitford sisters, having an affair with Mosley (who is also married) and then leaving her husband Bryan Guinness. Diana and Mosley eventually marry in October 1936 in Germany at the home of Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. Hitler was in attendance.

The last of the three letters was written on 14th May 1938 by Yoi Moraini. She lived in Italy and the letter is postmarked Florence. In it she tells Edith Olivier how she has been suffering from tonsillitis but that a fever was not going to stop her from seeing the “Duce” – Mussolini – and Hitler who were attending a gala performance of the opera. She also describes how a mutual friend also saw Mussolini – seeing him at least five times and taking photographs – as he paraded around Florence.

This report of Hitler and Mussolini together refers to a major state visit Hitler made to Italy from 3rd to 10th May 1938. Hitler arrived in Rome with an entourage of 500 people including Goebbels and Ribbentrop as well as diplomats and journalists. Hitler had hoped to sign a military alliance with Mussolini but this did not happen until May 1939.

These are just three letters from hundreds that were kept by Edith Olivier. Some of the correspondence is short and inconsequential but much of it reveals insights not only into the personal lives of the writers but also into key moments of British and world history.

Ruth Butler, Education Officer

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