March 28, 2015

Finest Hour 131, Summer 2006

Page 30

By David Freeman

“Eddie: You are very free with your commas, I always reduce them to a minimum: and use ‘and’ or an ‘or’ as a substitute not as an addition. Let us argue it out. W.”
“I look on myself as a bitter enemy of superfluous commas, and I think I could make a good case for any I have put in—but I won’t do it any more! E.”
“No do continue. I am adopting provisionally. But I want to argue with you. W.”
—Christopher Hassall, Edward Marsh (London: Longmans, 1949, 498)

When Edward Howard “Eddie” Marsh found himself invited to serve as private secretary to the newly-appointed Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies following a party given by Lady Granby on 14 December 1905, he felt intimidated. Despite a superb educational background (Westminster and a first in classics at Cambridge), Marsh doubted his ability to fulfill the expectations of the mercurial Winston Churchill. He was anxious about working for a younger man who—despite having had less formal education than himself—already possessed a growing reputation for brilliance. Seeking advice, Marsh called upon someone who knew Churchill well:

“I betook myself to Lady Lytton, who was a great friend of his as well as of mine (I learnt afterwards that she had taken a hand in the boosting of me at the party) and poured out my misgivings. Her answer was one of the nicest things that can ever have been said about anybody. ‘The first time you meet Winston you see all his faults, and the rest of your life you spend discovering his virtues.”*

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The Lady Lytton in question was the former Pamela Plowden, whom Winston had courted five years before. Marsh accepted her advice and the job, a professional relationship that amounted to twenty years, and a friendship that lasted fifty.

Eddie Marsh and Winston Churchill had personalities as different as their childhoods, although both were the products of typical Victorian upbringings. Marsh was born in London on 18 November 1872. His father Howard was a doctor of modest origins who met and married Jane Perceval while working at the Alexandra Hospital. Miss Perceval had inherited a share of the legacy voted by Parliament to the children of her grandfather Spencer Perceval, the only British prime minister ever to be assassinated.

As Mrs. Marsh, Jane saw to it that her son and daughter had strict, albeit nonconformist, religious upbringings. Jane Marsh also gave her children much personal attention with an emphasis on reading instruction, although she closely censored the texts her children saw. Eddie quickly emerged as a child prodigy, having memorized the first four books of Paradise Lost by age ten. He began and finished his model academic career two years ahead of the usual ages.

Eddie’s Cambridge years at Trinity College considerably broadened his literary knowledge, after a childhood nurtured with Mr. Bowdler’s Shakespeare. Poetry became the great love of his life. This trait, and his faultless knowledge of English grammar, contributed to his uncommon adulthood. A severe series of diseases in adolescence left the adult Marsh with fragile health, a wispy falsetto voice and, more cruelly, complete impotence.

In a perverse way this disability may have protected him in an age when homosexual behavior was still a criminal offense in Britain. For Marsh, himself strikingly handsome, was attracted to other young men but in a necessarily platonic way. As his biographer has written, Marsh “cultivated a capacity for friendship which, untroubled by physical desire, could develop into a devotion characteristically feminine in its tenderness.” This temperament proved ideal for a man who, while pursuing a career in the Civil Service, chose to use his share of the Perceval “murder money” to establish himself as a patron of aspiring young painters and poets.

Interestingly, the private behavior of Marsh’s social circle was well known enough for Lady Randolph Churchill to worry about the wisdom of her son engaging a private secretary who might associate her family with a scandal of whispers. No evidence exists, however, that Churchill ever concerned himself with Marsh’s private life. From questioning mutual friends, the youthful Under Secretary learned enough about the Colonial Office official’s professional abilities to convince himself that Marsh would make an ideal private secretary. Indeed, this was so. Marsh served Churchill off and on in the same capacity throughout the rising politician’s entire ministerial career through 1929.

The secret of their partnership lay in their very differences. Great teams consist of individuals that do not copy but rather complement one another. Tactful and patient, Marsh translated the furious energy of his demanding superior with his own quiet and meticulous administrative skills.

In parallel with his professional career, Marsh continued to act as a connoisseur and patron of the arts. In addition to collecting the paintings of Gertler, Spencer and the Nashes, he performed numerous acts of kindness for and befriended many of the great names in twentieth-century English literature including Robert Graves, D.H. Lawrence, Walter de la Mare, and above all Rupert Brooke, for whom he acted as biographer, anthologist and literary executor.

Marsh also served as a bridge between this artistic circle of friends and his political master. He introduced Churchill to professional painters during the otherwise disconsolate period of World War I when the ostracized former minister was taking up his most famous pastime. Marsh also introduced Churchill to Brooke, and to the grim modernism of the War Poets. Churchill was impressed enough to write Brooke’s obituary in The Times and to commit to memory many of the haunting stanzas of Owen, Blunden and Sassoon.

Marsh’s own literary work took the form of editing five volumes of Georgian Poetry published between 1912 and 1922. He translated Horace and La Fontaine and produced thousands of letters rich with gossipy information. He also acted as a textual editor not only for Churchill but for Hugh Walpole and Somerset Maugham. Churchill responded with his own personal accolade by having Marsh elected to The Other Club in 1932. A knighthood was bestowed upon retirement in 1937 and an autobiography, A Number of People, followed two years later.

Perhaps since he retired prior to World War II, Marsh today is less well remembered than the other shining satellites who orbited Churchill. Certainly, the Great Man never forgot their close association. In the midst of studying strategy one chilly day during the war’s darkest hours, Churchill suddenly paused to look up and observe, “This weather won’t do Eddie Marsh any good.” The Prime Minister then returned just as quickly to his own cares, and those of the nation.

Typically, when Marsh died in January of 1953, he was at work applying his skills as a literary surgeon to the manuscript of Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples. Also, at the request of a French magazine, he had been preparing a profile of his most famous associate. “Whether or not it be true that no valet can make a hero of his master, it is certainly not so of a Private Secretary,” Marsh wrote of Churchill. “It is enough to say that in my mind he is indisputably the greatest figure in English history.”

Further Reading: Owing to his close association with so many prominent people, Marsh figures in the biographies of numerous literary figures including Churchill. Most of these books, though, go back to Christopher HassaU’s beautifully written biography, Edward Marsh (London: Longmans, 1959) as their own source. While somewhat dated in style, the book is the standard work on Marsh. Eddie’s own memoirs, A Number of People (London: Heinemann, 1939), typically reflect his modesty in choosing to focus primarily on the many fascinating people he knew, rather than on himself.

*Which Lady Lytton?

Christopher Hassall {Edward Marsh, 120) declares that this famous remark was made by Edith, first Countess of Lytton (1841-1936). But the primary source, Marsh himself (A Number of People, 149), identifies the speaker as Pamela, second Countess of Lytton (1874-1971, the former Pamela Plowden), in his own words, as quoted in this article.

Both writers agree that it was Pamela who urged Churchill to choose Marsh at a party given by Lady Granby on 14 December 1905. Marsh confuses us (and probably confused his friend and biographer) by starting his account with the vague words “Lady Lytton”; but he goes on to identify this Lady Lytton as the selfsame person who had urged Churchill to hire him—and his index entry names Pamela, not Edith, as the speaker.

Hassall documents numerous letters and meetings between Eddie and Pamela, who were contemporaries, but not Eddie and Edith, who died three years before Marsh published his memoir, yet does not refer to “the late” Lady Lytton. The evidence is unequivocal. —Ed.

Professor Freeman teaches History at California State University Fullerton, and is a longtime contributor to Finest Hour.

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