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James Lees-Milne: The Life [Hardcover]

Michael Bloch
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)

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Book Description

3 Sep 2009
James Lees-Milne (1908-97) - known to friends as Jim - is remembered for his work for the National Trust, rescuing some of England's greatest architectural treasures, and for the vivid and entertaining diaries which have earned him a reputation as 'the twentieth-century Pepys'. In this long-awaited biography, Michael Bloch portrays a life rich in contradictions, in which an unassuming youth overtook more dazzling contemporaries to emerge as a leading figure in the fields of conservation and letters. It describes Jim's bisexual love life, his tempestuous marriage to the exotic Alvilde, and his friendship with other fascinating literary figures including John Betjeman, Robert Byron, Rosamond Lehmann, and the Mitford sisters (whose brother Tom had been Jim's great love at Eton). It depicts a man who was romantically attached to the England of his childhood and felt out of tune with his own times, but who left an enduring legacy through the preservation of country houses and his eloquent chronicling of a dying world.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: John Murray (3 Sep 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: '0719560349
  • ISBN-13: 978-0719560347
  • ASIN: 0719560349
  • Product Dimensions: 24.2 x 16.7 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 346,781 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'Admirably crisp, brisk and comprehensive'

(The Sunday Times (Culture), Peter Kemp)

'Full of sex, scandal and name-dropping, this biography does justice to James Lees-Milne'

(The Observer, Oliver Marre)

'Very funny indeed'

(The Independent on Sunday, DJ Taylor)

'If he does not sweep us up the whole length of the drive with his passionate intensity, he succeeds in dropping us off safely at the gates of a minor, but convincing, national treasure'

(The Telegraph Review, Nicholas Shakespeare)

'Funny, observant and revealing'

(The Scotsman, David Sexton)

'Fascinating new biography'

(Daily Mail)

'...a remarkable study, a striking three-dimensional portrait of a subversive, sensitive and endearing man...'

(Selina Hastings, Sunday Telegraph)

'Bloch has produced the perfect compliment to Lees-Milne's books and fully justified his mentor's faith'

(Evening Standard, David Sexton)

'Michael Bloch has resisted writing a pompous, laborious tombstone of a book about this long, busy, well-documented life.  His biography is disciplined, compact, elegant and tender...'

(Richard Davenport-Hines, Times Literary Supplement)

'Total candour and integrity.  This is an absolutely model biography'

(A. N. Wilson, Country Life)

'This book has been eagerly awaited by addicts of James Lees-Milne's diaries, and they will not be disappointed. It is as perfect a biography as it is possible to imagine... It is not merely a rehash of the diaries, but brings to life the mercurial and delicate intelligence that brought them into being'

(A. N. Wilson, Country Life)

'...a pleasing, rounded picture of the upper-class muddler who was the greatest English diarist of the twentieth century...  Michael Bloch, who knew his subject well for many years, is a tactful, sensitive but not an indulgent biographer. His book conveys the contradictions of character and circumstances out of which this complicated, elusive but attractive personality evolved towards late-flowering celebrity'

(Rosemary Hill, London Review of Books)

"Although Lees-Milne wrote so much about himself, Michael Bloch's admirable biography has nothing of déjà vu about it.  He has done his old friend proud"

(The Literary Review, Jeremy Lewis)

'This book is so well-written you can actually imagine what it's like to be duiaryist James Lees-Milne ... a brilliant insight into another world'

(News of the World)

'This final assortment of journals reaffirms Lees-Milne's reputation as one of the 20th century's greatest diarists'  

(Daily Express)

'I much enjoy his waspish asides and his frank self- knowledge'


'This book is so well-written you can actually imagine what it's like to be diarist James Lees-Milne ...a brilliant insight into another world.'

(News of the World)

'An admirable biography.  Bloch has written Lees-Milne's life in a way that honours its subject:  funny, observant and revealing ... the perfect complement to the diaries'

(David Sexton, Evening Standard)

'Bloch has dug deep and told all about his indiscreet, emotional, wrongheaded, infuriating, yet curiously disarming subject...  The result is an absorbing and faintly disquieting example of the contemporary biographer's art'

(Anne Chisholm, The Spectator 2009-10-03)

'The writer's affection and understanding has resulted in a remarkable study, a striking three-dimensional portrait of a subversive, sensitive and endearing man. Naturally, Bloch has made good use of the diaries, but he has gone far beyond them, investigating the long periods when nothing was written as well as uncovering an intriguing and recurrent thread of fantasy... James Lees-Milne: The Life is an exceptional biography: lively, perceptive and well-written... The diaries will never be superseded, but this book is their essential companion' (Telegraph Seven 2009-09-27)

'His vivid and sparkling biography...an accomplished and confident account...admirable,' (The Herald 2009-09-26)

''A joy to read'

(Evening Chronicle, Anthony Looch 2009-09-26)

'Superbly written and enormously entertaining...'

(Oxford Times 2009-09-26)

'This is a sensitive and nuanced account of his life' (The Week 2009-09-26)

'This book presents a frank and sympathetic portrait'

(Leicester Mercury 2009-09-26)

'A frank and sympathetic portrait'

(Western Mail / East Anglian Daily Times 2009-09-26)

'A frank and sympathetic portrait...9/10'

(Edinburgh Evening News 2009-09-12)

'A rich social history and a warm picture of a man particular to his time'

(Country & Town House 2009-09-12)

"Michael Bloch has served his old friend well...a book every bit as well written and entertaining as the diaries"

(Irish Times 2009-09-12)

"Frank and sympathetic portrait of a complex, cultured and loveable man, whose fame grew as he aged"

(Eastern Daily Press 2009-09-12)

'Admirably judged; warm, but not hagiographical; sufficiently candid, and acutely revealing...the subject and the author are here perfectly matched'

(The Observer 2009-09-12)

'A unique insight into the workings of our charity in its early days... and more'

(National Trust Magazine 2009-09-12)

About the Author

Michael Bloch read law at St John's College, Cambridge, and was called to the bar by the Inner Temple. Appointed James Lees-Milne's literary executor in 1997, he edited the final five volumes of the complete diary and most recently has edited and introduced the three abridged volumes.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pleasing portrait of a fascinating man 9 Oct 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
For fans of JLM, difficult to separate one's feelings about the biography as a literary work, and its subject. Bloch is a good writer, with flowing text, and had the advantage (or disadvantage) of being very well acquainted at a personal level with his subject. Despite this, it is not a hagiography, and after all, JLM himself was always ready to admit to his own failings. The biography is at it strongest and most interesting for the years up to the 1940s, where there is more original material; beyond that it is harder to avoid simply retreading the diaries, and Bloch is not totally successful in this. There might, perhaps, have been more assessment and views of others on JLM's work on conservation and its impact. I hope that the National Trust will be broad-minded enough to stock this book about its greatest servant, despite its earlier negativity.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A complex person 7 April 2010
It must have been difficult for Michael Bloch to have found new material for his excellent biography, so much having already been published in the Lees-Milne diaries. I have not been disappointed at all by this book, a real insight into an obviously complex man. Well worth reading, and I will be rereading the diaries, to read them in the context of this biography.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This biography is superb 20 Sep 2009
As per Ms Owen's statement, this biography has been a long time coming (and I nearly despaired) but it is entertaining. Having started to read the Diaries in 1985, I have always wondered about some aspects of JLM's life - and now have answers. One wonders what the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire thinks of this biography, for a number of reasons.

There is a hint, may be not a hint, yet a suggestion that there is yet another book which Michael Bloch could produce featuring JLM. Reflecting back on nearly a quarter of a century of reading Lees-Milne, I cannot help thinking that this biography should only be read after the Diaries or, just possibly, concurrently.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars National Treasure 27 Sep 2009
By Diacha
I enjoyed this affectionate and well-written biography. Michael Bloch's life of James Lees-Milne is a welcome complement to - though not a substitute for - his old friend's splendid diaries.

Bloch covers much ground familiar to us from the Diaries, but he also fills in gaps and separates fact from fiction in Lees-Milne's accounts, for the diarist had a tremendous tendency to suborn other people's anecdotes and claim them for his own experience. In addition to painting the life of a fascinating individual, Bloch takes us on a well-researched tour of several lost worlds: those of the fading and eccentric upper classes of the war and immediate post war period; of Society converts to Roman Catholicism; of publishing and literary circles when they were still run by gentlemen; and of the openly secret and still illegal world of upper class and literary homosexuals.

Bloch expertly guides us though Lees-Milnes' "lower upper class" upbringing - he commonly implied it was grander - his non-distinguished education at Eton and Magdalen, Oxford, with a stint at "Miss Blakeney's School of Stenography for Young Ladies" in between, his difficult relationship with his philistine father who considered him to be a pansy ("I told him I am"), and his discovery, in a sense, of a surrogate father in his older lover, Harold Nicolson. It was partly through Nicolson that Lees-Milne landed his position in the fledgling and still clubby National Trust. His role as Country Houses Secretary was pivotal to his personal development and through it he made a major contribution to the conservation of England's heritage at a time when confiscatory taxation and other social policies threatened it with eradication.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars At last the biography 5 July 2010
By warthog
I have so enjoyed James Lees-Milne diaries and am very pleased that at last the biography of his life is published. Like the previous reviewer, I too wondered about so many aspects of his life. His diaries only give us a brief account of his complex marriage to Alvilde, for instance, and now we are able to fit the pieces together. I always thought that the photographs published of him made him look characterless and even shifty perhaps. This cannot be further from the truth because Lees-Milne was a strong character and not afraid of saying what he thought. We can be grateful to him for his enormous contribution to the National Trust but it will be his diaries that will be remembered together with those of people like Chips Channon and Cecile Beaton. A great biography that was well researched and I would recommend this as a great read
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating - a broad over view 14 Oct 2009
If you have read The Diaries then there is much in this book that doesnt suprise... BUT what is interesting is the DOUBT the author injects into many of the well known J.M.L. stories and anecdotes.
I very much enjoyed the book... didnt necessarily feel that I had learnt much more about J.L.M. but greatly enjoyed the slight sense of DOUBT that sparkled through the book.
Its a Good Read
A fascinating and, indeed multi faceted central character - I was left with an even deeply regret that I had never met him - and that surely has to be the goal of any biography?
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