London: William Heinemann, 1917. First edition, first printing. Hardcover. This compelling inscribed association copy of the first edition of solider-poet Siegfried Sassoon’s (1886-1967) First World War poetry collection, The Old Huntsman, is inscribed on the front free-end paper “To Mrs. Colefax. | from the author. | June. 1917.” The front pastedown bears Sibyl and Arthur Colefax’s bookplate.
While the grey, paper-covered boards are original, the book has been skillfully re-backed. The fresher grey-paper spine and printed paper label defer to the original aesthetic while ensuring binding integrity and providing a clean shelf appearance. The original boards show moderate toning and scuffing with shelf wear to edges and corners. The contents are clean with no spotting and modest age-toning, primarily evident to the otherwise clean untrimmed fore and bottom edges. The top edge shows some shelf dust. The author’s inscription and the Colefax bookplate are the only ownership marks.
Sibyl Colefax (1874-1950), socialite, interior decorator, and matron of the arts, famously convened who’s-who gatherings of literati, artists, politicians, and social elite. “It was said that the only sound during the black-out in London was of Lady Colefax climbing the social ladder…” (Brian Masters, The Times, London). Jabs aside, Mrs. Colefax was renowned for her charm, curiosity, and amicability. Aldous Huxley quipped to his brother that a large poetry reading for charity at the Colefax home in December 1917 was “a large expensive audience of the BEST PEOPLE.” But he did attend and did read. As did many others.
Sassoon had already read at the Colefax’s home the previous November. “Mrs. Colefax led him [Sassoon] to a chair and a copy of The Old Huntsman.” (Egremont, p.175). He read three poems from the collection, ‘The Hero’, ‘They’, and ‘The Rear-Guard’ in his terse, grim, and serious style. It seems quite plausible that this copy is the same from which Sassoon read on the occasion.
In November 1917, while Sassoon was briefly in London (absent from the Front since being wounded in April), the impromptu recitation was pushed upon him by his dinner companions, Robert Ross, Roderick Meiklejohn, and Robert Nichols, whom he had met at The Reform Club, and soon he was buffeted to the Colefax’s party in Onslow Square. Reportedly, the party was mostly women, which undoubtedly discomfited Sassoon. Perhaps owing to his repressed homosexuality, Sassoon found women to be—in his own words—'anti-pathetic’. Whatever Sassoon’s feelings, it seems that the reception of his work was warm.
The inscription in this volume – penned by Sassoon the month after publication – clearly preceded his November 1917 recitation at the Colefax’s home. Some diffidence or deference can be inferred from the use of the titular “Mrs.” and the signature “from the Author”, both of which formally distance Sassoon from the recipient. This is an excellent association copy between one of the First World War’s most regarded poets and one of Britain’s most conspicuous socialites. It is also an absolutely delicious incongruity. It is trench warfare meets embroidery, an irony likely not lost on Sassoon when he recited his war poems in a salon bedecked in the style of English Regency Revival.
The timing lends further irony. In July 1917, a month after this book was inscribed, Sassoon caused a distinctly non-literary stir in the upper class with his letter, published in The Times, written “in wilful defiance of military authority” and asserting that the war was “being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it”.
A shell shock diagnosis saved Sassoon from Court Martial. Providence saved him when he returned to the front in 1918 and was again wounded, this time in the head. And “the First World War turned him from a versifier into a poet… in The Old Huntsman… Sassoon’s savagely realistic and compassionate war poems… established his stature as a fully-fledged poet, and… it was mainly as a war poet that he was regarded for the rest of his life.” (ODNB). Item #006700