JAMES LEES-MILNE ON HIS BOYHOOD
George James (“Jim”) Henry Lees-Milne (1908-97) was a prolific English writer and saviour of endangered country houses, probably most remembered as a diarist. Amongst the books he wrote, there was one Greek love novel, The Fool of Love (1990), and biographies of two prominent English boy-lovers: William Beckford (1976) and The Enigmatic Edwardian (1986), the latter about Reginald Brett, Lord Esher.
The following about his sexual experiences as a schoolboy at Eton from 1921 to 1926 is from James Lees-Milne: The Life, London, 2009, by Michael Bloch, his close friend and literary executor, who edited his diaries, mostly in Lees-Milne’s lifetime. The diaries themselves began long after Lees-Milne left Eton, but included references to his time at the school, which are quoted or cited here.
In view of this studied dimness and detachment from the school ethos, it is curious that, in his third year at Eton, Jim became a favourite of his House Captain, Julian Hall, a handsome hero who was a member of the privileged Eton Society or ‘Pop’. (He later became a minor literary figure, and succeeded to a baronetcy). A decade later, in 1933, Hall published a school novel entitled The Senior Commoner, in which the hero, Harold Weir, is obviously autobiographical, and one of the lesser characters, Jim Marsh Downe, is obviously based on Jim Lees-Milne (even to the fact that his mother is an old schoolfriend of the housemaster’s wife, Mrs. McIsaacs). Weir takes a liking to Marsh Downe, ‘the only younger boy with whom he had any relationship’. Marsh Downe is ‘tall for his age, with clear skin and light hair’, and rather foppish, tucking a silk handkerchief into the sleeve of his coat. … [An asterisked note adds:] This would seem to be an authentic account of the fifteen-year-old Jim at Eton. … The portrait is acknowledged as being true to life in Jim’s diary for 16 June 1973, and in letters from Hall among Jim’s papers at Yale.]
For a 1930s novel, The Senior Commoner is daringly homosexual: part of the plot concerns a sinister young actor who visits ‘Ayrton’, with a view to seducing boys there (based on an actual episode in which the American actress Tallulah Bankhead attempted to lure Eton boys to a nearby hotel until warned off by the police). Hall was himself homosexual in adult life, and one might ask to what extent his interest in Jim was sexual. In the novel, Harold Weir has a ‘crush’ not on Marsh Downe but on a still younger boy called Murray Gawthorne — feelings which he confides to Marsh Downe, who himself fancies Gawthorne, a house contemporary of his younger brother. This brother is presumably based on Dick Lees-Milne, who entered McNeile’s [their house at Eton] two years after Jim; and Gawthorne is probably based on Dick’s contemporary Desmond Parsons (himself the younger brother of Michael [6th Earl of] Rosse, a senior boy in McNeile’s and a contemporary of Hall): the blond and languorous Desmond was one of the most beautiful boys at the school and had numerous admirers, not least Jim himself.
If Julian Hall enjoyed physical intimacy with Jim, he was not the first to do so. In his diary for 3 June 1991 Jim noted the announcement in The Times of the death of one Lieutenant-Colonel Berkeley Villiers,
who was the ﬁrst boy to seduce me at McNeile’s. I remember the incident extremely well, I aged fifteen at most. In the middle of the performance Michael Rosse, then his great friend, came into Berkeley’s room and like the perfect gentleman he was fetched something he had left on the mantelpiece without turning his head in our direction. Michael never referred to the incident in later life, nor did B.V. whom from time to time I ran across. A prissy, affected fellow . . . The smell of his Roger & Gallet Carnation Soap never fails to remind me. Thrilling, alarming, wicked-seeming and delicious it was.
Having tasted forbidden fruit, Jim never looked back: for the rest of his schooldays, the pursuit of erotic adventures with other boys was constantly on his mind. Such activities had to be conducted with deftness and discretion, for exposure meant instant disgrace and expulsion: indeed, the elements of secrecy and danger added to the thrill. Visiting Eton in I942 and attending Evensong in the Chapel, Jim nostalgically watched the outwardly well-behaved boys ‘flashing across the nave confidential smiles that mean so much, ogling and making assignations without a word being spoken. Oh the squalid thoughts and the romance of it all at the time, I remember!’ No doubt the scene brought to mind his friend Tom Mitford, and how
on Sunday eves before Chapel at five, when the toll of the bell betokened that all boys must be in their pews, he and I would, standing on the last landing of the entrance steps, out of sight of the masters in the ante-chapel and all the boys inside, passionately embrace, lips to lips, body pressed to body, each feeling the opposite fibre of the other.
Visiting Eton in the 1980s and following the Thames upstream, Jim recalled two spots where he had engaged in trysts – an islet in the river called Queen’s Eyot, and a railway viaduct known as ‘Arches’: the former recalled Desmond Parsons, the latter a boy named Tulloch (another future lieutenant-colonel). ‘No subsequent escapades, he wistfully agreed with John Betjeman, ‘have eclipsed those schoolday ones.’
Whilst healthily lustful for his age, Jim was at the same time an intensely romantic boy. As he hated his father, saw little of his mother, had little in common with his siblings and had no real friends at home, the love of schoolfriends assumed great emotional importance for him. His two great loves at Eton were Tom Mitford and Desmond Parsons. Tom he had known since Lockers Park [his preparatory school] and loved almost as a brother; Desmond was two years his junior, but a soulful, solitary and sensitive boy with whom he established a deep bond. Both were aristocratic, beautiful and artistically gifted: Jim’s romantic love was enhanced by the discreet affairs he was conducting with them. They would both die young, and Jim would be haunted by them for the rest of his life. They often appeared to him in his dreams; and he was forever trying to recapture the bliss which their friendship had brought him in adolescence (to the point that he later fell in love with sisters who reminded him of them, Diana Mitford and Bridget Parsons).
Most of Jim’s other Eton friendships were with boys who shared his love of literature; … In Another Self, Jim amusingly relates that he was once tricked into accompanying two of these boys in a Rolls-Royce to a roadhouse at Bray, where he was unwillingly made to participate in an elaborate prank in which they all dressed up as women and ‘offered’ themselves to men (including masters from school) at a thé dansant, Jim proving ludicrously inept at the imposture and narrowly avoiding exposure in front of his geometry master. …
It is evident that at Eton, as during his early childhood at Wickhamford, Jim lived largely in a world of his own. The school world — the world of lessons, games, rules, discipline, sense of community, exhortations to virtue — was one to which he paid attention only in so far as he was obliged to, in order to avoid trouble and have a quiet life. To him, the ‘real world’ was the world of loving friends, sexual adventures, art, literature and daydreams. He felt detached from Eton, observing it from the outside. (pp. 18-22)
It is worth adding that the above experiences did nothing to diminish Lees-Milne’s enthusiasm, at seventeen, for “his first heterosexual experience” with a divorced relation during “his last school holidays at Easter 1926”, described on pp. 27-28, and he went on to be bisexual.
 Julian Hall, The Senior Commoner (Martin Secker, 1933), pp.72-9, 93-5, 142, 345
 Diary, 1 March 1942
 Diary, 20 July 1980
 Diary, 9 August 1983
 Diary, 20 May 1973
 Diary, 21 May 1985