James Lees-Milne is not a name that the majority of people will be familiar with. Born in 1908 to a prosperous manufacturing family in Worcestershire, England, Milne gained a top rate education at Eton College and Oxford University. Described as shy, withdrawn and suffering from an inferiority complex, he did not appear to shine at either of these institutions. By 1931, through making connections with the likes of Tom Mitford, Basil Ava, Randolph Churchill and his relative Oswald Moseley, James Lees-Milne began to despair about his future and dreamed of a career in literature.
Milne’s private life was wrought with troubling events, as his cousin became pregnant with his child and later miscarried, something which affected for years to come. This is believed to have influenced his later public enthusiasm towards birth control. He also began engaging in casual affairs with both sexes until he got engaged to Lord Cranbrook’s sister, Lady Anne Gathorne-Hardy, in 1935. In 1936 however, Milne broke off this engagement due to a mixture of factors; publicly, this was considered to be due to his on-going worries about his career and financial difficulties. This socially disgraced Milne and he became less motivated about his future for several months.
In early spring, things were looking up for Milne as a highly respected job was offered to him in the form of Secretary to the newly formed National Trust Country House Committee. Although the salary was minimal, James Lees-Milne was responsible for locating and compiling lists of houses deemed to be worthy of preservation, through which he acquired invaluable skills he would refer back to later on in his career. Alongside the job, he became less withdrawn and established friendships which gave him an astonishingly varied social life. He also began to produce poetry, novels, short stories and diaries which remained unpublished, for the most part, at this point.
When war hit in 1939, Milne was once again entering into a low point in his life, he gradually discontinued his employment with the National Trust, instead focusing his energy on aiding the war effort. He contributed to the early years of the war but was later taken ill with Jacksonian epilepsy, a form of brain damage which causes seizures, visual disturbances and hallucinations. After being discharged from the army and once his health began to return, Milne started to write diaries about the war and influenced wartime politics within the National Trust.
In 1949, Milne proposed to a married woman, Alvilde Chaplin, and enquired whether an annulment of her previous marriage would be accepted within the Catholic faith. This request was rejected and so Milne and Alvilde were wed at a registry office in 1951. Things began to improve for Milne and, although his health never fully recovered, he began to travel the world with his new wife as well as increasingly writing and working around the architectural buildings of Britain under the National Trust. He wrote two critically acclaimed books in this time, Age of Inigo Jones (1953) and Roman Mornings (1956).
However, by 1958, Milne’s depression began to rear its head once again as he became jaded. The lack of a physical relationship with Alvilde furthered Milne’s struggle to repress his homosexual urges. Alvilde engaged in a lesbian affair with Vita-Sackville West, a fact known to both James Lees-Milne and their social circle, extending his unhappiness. His trust and loyalty to the Catholic Church had waned due to their reluctance to accept his marriage, and he became disillusioned with the National Trust, ending in his resignation. An affair he engaged in with a younger man worsened his relationship with wife Alvilde and they resided in separate dwellings for several years.
James Lees-Milne continued to write popular novels, autobiographical works and diaries during these years and started to gain recognition for his works outside of the field of architecture. In 1974, Alvilde and Milne moved to Bath together, where they remained for the rest of their lives. Although both discreetly engaged in homosexual affairs, they became closer as Milne developed a seriously illness and Alvilde attempted to nurse him back to health. Alvilde’s health took a drastic turn for the worst in 1992 and, following her death a mere two years later Milne was disconsolate for a short period.
He enjoyed the latter years of his life as a widower, experiencing a new found freedom and revelling in his status as his works were recognised as poignant and elegiac. However, as documented in Milne’s diaries, he spent various stages of his life feeling intensely depressed due to a number of factors, namely his inability to be openly homosexual for the most part of his life.