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Response to Review no. 256

It is difficult to quibble about either the general tone or the specific content of David Dutton’s extremely generous review of Volume II of the Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters – particularly when it is written by a scholar who has written so extensively about many of the leading figures of the interwar years, including an admirable recent assessment of Neville Chamberlain’s reputation which makes an outstanding contribution to the rehabilitation of its subject. Nevertheless, there is one point raised in Dr Dutton’s review which does merit clarification. This concerns the claim that the use of the title ‘Diary Letters’ is ‘somewhat misleading’ as Chamberlain kept a personal journal and that ‘the primary purpose of his letters to Ida and Hilda was not to record events for posterity but to keep them informed, to share his concerns with two women of considerable intelligence and good sense, and to use his sisters as a sounding board for his own thoughts and plans’.

In part, the adoption of the term ‘diary letters’ for this correspondence represented a logical extension of my earlier edited volume of letters from Austen Chamberlain to the same sisters which he commenced in February 1917 after enquiring whether he ‘could write something like a diary letter’ to them. Yet the far more important point is that neither the term nor the practice of writing regular ‘diary letters’ within the Chamberlain family actually began with Austen – or even with the generation of Austen, Neville, Hilda and Ida. Indeed, among the papers of their late Aunt Mary discovered in 1919, there was an envelope intended for Neville containing two letters relating to the death of his grandfather and grandmother to be kept as a record of family history for future generations. This clearly reflected an established family tradition, which Neville and his sisters had assiduously perpetuated since Neville’s prolonged and painful separation in 1890s, while he unsuccessfully tended the family’s sisal-growing enterprise on the island of Andros. During this period Ida later recalled writing him ‘diary letters in which [she] recorded all [her] doings every day’. By the time that Austen began his own rather erratic attempts to maintain some sort of weekly diary letter to his sisters in 1917, Neville had already been conscientiously penning his weekly epistles to Hilda and Ida for certainly almost two years (and possibly longer) with far greater consistency, detail and commitment. Moreover, as he explicitly noted on New Year’s Day in 1921, in composing these detailed accounts the correspondence with his sisters had ‘the advantage of making a sort of diary’. In this sense, therefore, the term ‘diary letters’ precisely reflects how both sides in the epistolary relationship regarded this correspondence and its longer-term purpose.

Yet the far more fundamental point raised by David Dutton relates less to the use of the term than the relative significance and historical value of the diary letters to Hilda and Ida when compared with the five relatively slim volumes of political journals which cover a similar period. In this respect, it is necessary to take issue with the reviewer insofar as he unquestionably understates the importance of the former relative to the latter when he asserts that ‘Chamberlain did, on occasion, clearly use them as a substitute for entries in his diary which the busy schedule of an overburdened cabinet minister sometimes prevented from being written’. In reality, the reverse would be far closer to the mark. Despite a similarity in the period covered, the content and even the phrasing, the political journals invariably lack the depth, the detail and (crucially) the almost unfailing weekly consistency of the record contained in the diary letters to his sisters, which so painstakingly reconstructed all of the events, activities and experiences of the preceding week. Comparison of the content of the first volume of the political journals with the same period in Volume I of the Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters is thus highly illuminating insofar as the number of (often brief) entries in the former varies from a maximum of fourteen in 1915 to a mere five entries in each of 1917, 1920 and 1921, with only three for the whole of 1919. In contrast, between the commencement of the existing diary letters in May 1915 and the end of 1921 Chamberlain wrote over 320 letters to his sisters involving perhaps 60,000 words a year. In fairness, as Chamberlain ascended the ladder of Cabinet importance after 1922 the number of journal entries does also generally increase. Moreover, on rare occasions these journal accounts fill significant gaps in the account contained in the letters to his sisters – almost invariably created by an occasional weekend actually spent together. For example, this was the case on 14 March 1931 when Chamberlain suddenly abandoned his plans to go fishing in order to visit his sisters and unburden himself of his anger and frustration, at a time when his patience towards Baldwin had reached breaking point. Having learned of Baldwin’s soreness that Chamberlain had failed to support him more robustly in his battle against the press lords, he confessed that he found such charges ‘difficult to stomach without resentment’. The political journals thus provide three relatively lengthy entries for the missing week with details of his decision to resign as party chairman and of a cold and irritable meeting on 13 March which only further intensified Chamberlain’s wounded sense of outrage. ‘To me it seemed astonishing that he should have expressed no single word of surprise, regret or satisfaction at my decision to leave the Central Office and no single word of appreciation of my work there’, he noted bitterly in his journal next day. ‘Surely no “leader” ever accepted more or gave less to his followers than S.B.’ Yet although the existence of this alternative record is extremely fortunate from the historian’s perspective, when viewed in their entirety, the journals actually contain remarkably little not recorded in the diary letters. Ultimately, it is indicative of Chamberlain’s own perception of the relative importance of the two parallel records that he rarely failed to send a weekly diary letter to his sisters – even after having met them earlier in the week – such was his desire to preserve the continuity of both the practice and the record. In contrast, lengthy gaps were allowed to appear in the journals, such as that between 20 July 1933 and January 1934, and these are explained away casually by reference to the fact that he had simply been ‘too busy’ to do otherwise.

Yet beyond the far greater continuity, depth and length of the record contained in the diary letters, their outstanding value and importance is derived from the very nature of the epistolary act and the closeness of the relationship with his sisters which underpinned his devotion to it. Thus, whatever the similarity in terms of information content, the solitary act of keeping a diary did not necessarily encourage the same uninhibited expression of emotion and inner feelings that so often emerges in an intense and revealing manner in the diary letters to his sisters. Only here do we really see more than a glimpse of the complete inner man so fastidiously concealed from the world beyond his immediate family. Indeed, as Austen noted in 1931, even within the family it was well known ‘how tongue-tied in matters of sentiment’ his half-brother was. Yet the intense natural confidence and reassuring intimacy of Neville Chamberlain’s bond with his sisters encouraged this supremely reticent man to indulge a well developed propensity for ‘epistolary garrulity’ (as he called it in August 1921), which permitted him to reveal as much about his innermost thoughts, hopes, fears and ambitions as he was ever capable of exposing to anyone – perhaps even to his adoring wife. Ultimately, the unique value of the diary letters is derived from precisely this additional, intensely personal insight into that hidden, warmer and more human side of the truly enigmatic personality which lurked behind a public persona that all too often appeared to be cold, abrasive and supremely unlovable.