Maurice Baring is one of those writers of whom it is periodically said that he is unjustly forgotten and ripe for reappraisal. In his own lifetime, he was a prolific and popular author: a uniform edition of his work published by Heinemann in 1925 lists over 50 works — novels, plays, anthologies, poetry, memoirs and reportage — most of which are now out of print. Clearly, the very volume of his output has made it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff: in the 1970s Edmund Wilson wrote an essay entitled ‘How Not to Be Bored by Maurice Baring’.
Baring was born in 1874 into one of the grandest and most influential families in England. Barings Bank was then second only to Rothschilds, and there were five Baring peers in the House of Lords. Maurice was the seventh child of one of them, Baron Revelstoke, and in his autobiography, The Puppet Show of Memory, he describes a charmed childhood surrounded by nannies, governesses and household servants. He went to Eton and spent time at both Oxford and Cambridge though he never took a degree in either university. Destined for the Foreign Office, he passed the exam on his third try.
Baring’s life thereafter seems like an extenuated Grand Tour. Posted as an attaché to Paris at the height of the belle époque, he befriended Anatole France and Sarah Bernhardt. Moving on to Copenhagen, he was taken up by the Russian ambassador and his wife, Count and Countess Benkendorf, and made frequent visits to their home in Russia. In 1902 he was transferred to Rome, but his real interest lay in literature rather than diplomacy and in 1904 he resigned from the Foreign Office to cover the Russo-Japanese war for the Morning Post.
Baring was no dispassionate observer: ‘One can have nothing but contempt for the Japs and their German ways,’ he wrote to Edmund Gosse. ‘They flood the world with imitation soda water and imitation Bryant and May matches which explode in one’s pocket.’ The defeat of the Russians did not diminish his love of that country and the many books he wrote about it are well worth reading today. A discerning literary critic, he recognised the genius of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and was the first person to mention Chekhov as a playwright in the English press.
Baring’s two major novels, C and Cat’s Cradle, were written in middle age. They are stylistically impeccable but shapeless, with thin characterisation and trivial preoccupations. He was criticised at the time for creating characters that ‘do nothing but go to parties’ and writes defensively to Vernon Lee in one of the letters in this collection that these critics would be quite happy if the parties were in Bloomsbury or Chelsea rather than Mayfair and Belgravia. Better novelists, however, such as Edith Wharton and particularly Henry James, set their stories in similar settings. With their mix of amorous and Catholic sentiment, Baring’s novels are more like those of the equally forgotten but once popular French author, Paul Bourget: the heroine of Cat’s Cradle, Blanche Clifford, finds her father ‘sitting in the dark leather armchair and reading a new French novel by Paul Bourget’.
‘I think that the existence of merely frivolous people who are bent on amusment is a necessary element in this grey world,’ Baring wrote to Vernon Lee in 1903. However, Baring himself could take life seriously when he chose. In 1909 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Earlier, in a letter to Reginald Balfour, he had written that he wished he had been born a Catholic but that ‘nothing can make me believe if one is a Christian that it is a matter of life and death which church one belongs to’. Subsequently he became a friend of the ultra-Catholic Hilaire Belloc and it is to his influence that, later in life, Baring ascribed his conversion: ‘But for you I should never have come into the Church . . . you were the lighthouse that showed me the way.’
With Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, Baring made up a triumvirate of Catholic writers. In his letters to Ethel Smythe included in this collection there is a succinct apologia for his Catholic faith:
Anglicanism seemed to me a lopped off branch and ten years in Russia convinced me that the Orthodox Church (more attractive to me outwardly than R.C.dom) was not a lopped but a bent schismatic branch.
However, he advised Belloc, never, never, never talk theology or discuss the Church with those outside it … People simply do not understand what you are talking about and they merely (a) get angry and (b) come to the conclusion that one doesn’t believe in the thing oneself and that one is simply doing it to annoy.
Baring never married and, though he clearly loved women, there is no record of any affairs. Prematurely bald, he may have decided that he was not attractive to women, or discovered from experience that this was the case: ‘There is not one unqualifiedly happy affair in his fiction,’ his biographer Emma Letley observed, ‘and I am reasonably certain this is also true of his life.’ His friend Laura Lovat said that he ‘had the mind of a child’ and others that he was ‘a schoolboy for life’; but he could be earnest and adult when circumstances required. Jocelyn Hillgarth and Julian Jeffs, the editors of this fascinating collection of Baring’s letters, include a long and serious one from Baring about the strengths and deficiencies of the Royal Flying Corps in which he served as adjutant to the commander, Lord Trenchard. After Baring’s death Lord Trenchard wrote, ‘He was the most unselfish man I have ever met or am likely to meet. The Flying Corps owed to this man much more than they know or think.’
‘If Baring were alive today,’ Joseph Epstein wrote in The New Criterion in 1992, ‘publishers would have nothing to do with him; he would find no place in any university; it is doubtful that he could command even a few hundred readers.’ This is probably still true, but it says as much about today’s reading public as it does about Maurice Baring.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 13, 2007