Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is a misleading title, in that Sassoon’s stand-in George Sherston is neither a man nor fox-hunting for most of the book. The focus in this first book of the trilogy is Sherston’s pastoral upbringing under the auspices of his Aunt Evelyn and Dixon, the groom. There’s fox-hunting, but there’s also cricket and a horse race, the Colonel’s Cup, that Sherston wins in Sassoon’s anticlimactic narration:
After that really remarkable recovery of mine, life became lyrical, beatified, ecstatic, or anything else you care to call it. To put it tersely, I just galloped past Brownrigg, sailed over the last two fences, and won by ten lengths. Stephen came in a bad third. I also remember seeing Roger Pomfret ride up to Jaggett in the paddock and inform him in a most aggressive voice that he’d got to “something well pay up and look pleasant.”
Paragraphs like that, the capper to about two pages describing the race, are the problem. Sassoon piles up details without attending to thematic importance. Should I be surprised that Sherston won? Sad that Sherston’s friend Stephen lost? Or is it more important that Pomfret threatens Jaggett?
Things pick up at book’s end, when Sherston joins the army and ships off to France. Though Sherston experiences no traumatizing combat in this book, both Dixon and Stephen are killed. That yields this penultimate paragraph:
Back in the main trench, I stood on the firestep to watch the sky whitening. Sad and stricken the country emerged. I could see the ruined village below the hill and the leafless trees that waited like sentries up by Contalmaison. Down in the craters the dead water took a dull gleam from the sky. I stared at the tangles of wire and the leaning posts, and there seemed no sort of comfort left in life. My steel hat was heavy on my head while I thought how I’d been on leave last month. I remembered how I’d leant my elbows on Aunt Evelyn’s front gate. (It was my last evening.) That twilight, with its thawing snow, made a comfortable picture now. John Homeward had come past with his van, plodding beside his weary horse. He had managed to make his journey, in spits of the state of the roads…He had pulled up for a few minutes, and we’d talked about Dixon, who had been such an old friend of his. “Ay; Tom was a good chap; I’ve never known a better…” He had said good-bye and good-night and set his horse going again. As he turned the corner the past had seemed to go with him…
That’s a hell of a “good-bye to all that” before the character has even been put through the line.
I had marked Siegfried Sassoon as a Great War also-ran, and he really is. Compared to Wilfred Owen’s experiments with consonance and form, Sassoon was a traditionalist in the Rupert Brooke vein who just happened to write angry. Memoir (in the older politician’s sense) is an appropriate frame for this book; the first chunk of it appears to be thinly fleshed out diary entries. But that closing chapter suggests Sassoon was just setting the stage for what’s to come.