This book has been on my radar for decades, ever since my teenage horsey phase. I vaguely remember trying to read it, but grasping that it wasn’t really about horses. Then of course when I read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth and embarked on a little WWI obsession, Sassoon came back in his role as a poet. Finally, he’s one of the models for Pat Barker’s Regeneration.
Then this lovely edition (with beautiful William Nicholson illustrations and, oh joy! uncut pages!) entered the household at Christmas. I began to read. Lovely stuff but a bit puzzling. Disingenuous, it seemed. More literary than I’d expected. Amid the jolly old England and frosty mornings on horseback, there were haunting touches about mirrors gone blind with age and casual remarks from the narrator about his own thinly-constructed identity. As “a fox-hunting man,” of course. Wikipedia told me the book had been written in 1928, long after Sassoon’s horrendous war service and searing poetry and spell in a mental hospital. Yet where was the rage?
Oh, it’s so well done. It is lovely, lyrical, gently humorous, as the thinly disguised “George Sherston” advances from his first pony to his first race over fences. Very little foreshadowing but of course in retrospect you see how the structures and implements of fox-hunting prefigure those of battle. Even the final chapter, with a Nicholson sketch of a gun heading the page, moves gently into the now-familiar territory of mud and explosions. The one jarring factor is his invention of “Dick Tiltwood” (if the reminiscence of the knightly joust weren’t enough, he refers to him later as a Galahad figure) who stands for all that is beautiful, straightforward and lovely about British manhood. Naturally Tiltwood takes a bullet near the end. For the rest, Sassoon’s savagery is compressed by his control until the final pages which bring together a memory of rural England with the reality of Belgian trenches in the spring of 1917. Incredibly effective.