In his history of Pickwick Cottage (Journal Summer 2012), Bernard Nurse noted that the author Maurice Baring lived there from 1918-1921. Who, one might ask was Maurice Baring? A century ago, even a half a century ago he was the well known author of some fifty volumes of books, poems and plays, a man with a distinguished pedigree who was at home in the highest social circles. Today he is largely unknown. When a publisher decided to re-issue one of his books in the 1990’s the editors acknowledged the diminished stature of their subject in the Preface by recalling the story of someone going into a Charing Cross Road bookshop and asking “Have you any Maurice Barings?” The reply was “This is a bookshop, sir, not a garage.”
Baring was the eighth child, and fifth son, of Edward Charles Baring, first Baron Revelstoke, of the Baring banking family, and his wife Louisa Emily Charlotte Bulteel, granddaughter of the second Earl Grey. The family had a large house in Charles Street, Mayfair and an estate named Membland near Newton Ferrers in south Devon where Lord Revelstoke was lord of the manor and where he built the present church of Noss Mayo , on a hill overlooking the river Yealm.
As a child, Maurice Baring was, as was the custom in high society families, taught at home. In his case in the schoolroom in Charles Street, where he, his younger brother and three older sisters were taught by an English tutor and a French governess named Cherié. Cherié meant the world to Maurice and from her he learnt impeccable French from an early age. The children conversed in French and put on plays in that language. However, Maurice soon discovered that he was hopeless at mathematics, no doubt something of a shock in a family of bankers!
At the age of 10 he went to a small prep school near Ascot. The school was full of petty rules and Maurice was decidedly unhappy. It was not until he went to Eton that he found a niche. He excelled in languages and won the coveted Prince Consort prize for French when a year younger than his fellow competitors. This more or less coincided with the disaster that beset the family in what was called the Great Panic in the autumn of 1890. Lord Revelstoke who had become head of Barings Bros Bank, took risks and invested too heavily in South American stock. When the price collapsed, Barings was left exposed and had to be rescued by the Bank of England and a consortium of other banks. It would be Maurice’s older brother John who would step in and rebuild the bank’s reputation ( in 1995 Barings Bank finally collapsed through the actions of its market trader Nick Leeson, working unsupervised in Singapore)
The Mayfair house, and the estate in Devon had to be sold off together with pictures and other items. The staff and horses all went and Cherié moved to a cottage in Hampshire where Maurice visited her. Even his last year at Eton was cancelled and he was dispatched to Hanover to learn German in order to read Modern Languages at Cambridge. It was probably in Germany, where he stayed both in Hanover and Heidelberg that he discovered his interest in people and travelling which would later form the basis for writing, both as a journalist and as an author.
After a year, he was admitted to Trinity College Cambridge despite his inadequacy in mathematics and despite being privately tutored in the subject. Cambridge was not a success for him, even though he entered into its social life by joining the amateur dramatics society and launching a varsity newspaper. This venture lasted for four issues and Aubrey Beardsley, who was just becoming known as an artist, designed one of the covers. It was probably still as a result of the trauma of his father’s fall from wealth and the unsettling effect on the family and losing his beloved Membland that affected his time at Cambridge. He says in his autobiography The Puppet Show of Memory that he did not like the curriculum, and he barely attended any lectures. Notwithstanding his success in winning literary prizes at Eton, he seems to have had a dislike of being tested and was nervous of formal examinations and left Cambridge after his first year.
It was then agreed that he should enter the diplomatic service, a prerequisite of which was passing the Civil Service exam. His hopelessness at maths meant more cramming for the exam was required. It would take Maurice Baring three attempts and five years of cramming to finally pass the Civil Service exam but the burden was eased because much of it took place in Oxford where he was notionally attached to Balliol. This allowed him to enter the social life there and he became a great friend of Auberon Herbert, Lord Lucas, known as Bron. They were of a similar character, very patriotic, engaging and daring. Herbert became a war correspondent covering the Boer War, where he lost a foot, and later entered politics, reaching government in 1914 as President of the Board of Agriculture. Maurice Baring shared the house in North Street of Herbert and his sister Nan prior to World War 1 and during the five uncertain weeks before the declaration of war, the house at Westminster became a gathering point for many of the prime movers in the drama. This connection would later bring Baring to Pickwick Cottage.
Baring finally began his diplomatic career in 1898 with a post in the British embassy in Paris. His social position opened all doors and he became friends and a fervent admirer with the much older Sarah Bernhardt. From Paris he was posted to Copenhagen (where he quickly learnt Danish) and finally to Rome. It is quite clear from his autobiography that while he enjoyed meeting people, the tedium of the work in the chancery department of the embassies was too great and he abandoned diplomacy in 1904 and embarked on what would turn out to be a love affair with Russia, by becoming a foreign correspondent for The Morning Post. In this capacity he travelled widely, covering the Russo-Japanese war in Manchuria.
As a war correspondent in both the Russo-Japanese war and the Balkan war, Baring showed a fearless character and was even-handed in his reporting of the conflicts, displaying an empathy with the ordinary soldiers of each nation. In Manchuria he was embedded with a Cossack artillery regiment on the front line and witnessed the most appalling effects of modern artillery and machine gun fire on the soldiery. He warned against defensive tactics like trench warfare, warnings which would go unheeded a decade later in the larger conflict.
Following the end of the war in Manchuria, Baring stayed on in Russia as the Morning Post’s correspondent in St Petersburg where he identified the rumblings of the Revolution which he accurately predicted. His method of gauging the tenor of the Russian people was not to stay in the cities and chance meeting them but travelling in the third class compartments of trains running all over Russia. In this way he could converse with peasants, soldiers, and petty officials who were only too glad to break the monotony of the long train journeys by conversation.
Baring developed an affection for all things Russian, its people, its landscape, its music and its literature. It is said that he introduced the works of Chekov to western European audiences. It is odd, but entirely in character, that when on long leave in England he not only wrote a number of books on Russia but reviewed the latest offerings of the London stage for the newspaper.
Baring was firmly grounded in the peak of high society but remained impervious to its imperfections. He was a fringe member of the Coterie, the intellectual aristocratic set, descendents of the ‘Souls’, who met at the Café Royal or the emerging nightclubs of Edwardian London, They were more serious than their post-war successors personified by Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies. He was described aptly as the kind of person at a party who would be at the edge, part of it but a little distant - leaning against a wall.
He was one of the triumvirate of sometime newspaper correspondents, writers and poets known as the Three Musketeers - Baring, Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton. All three wrote poetry, prose and humorous articles. All three converted to Roman Catholicism in their thirties and all three had a deep affection for England, its landscape and tradition and wove these interests into their writing, for example, Chesterton with ‘The Rolling English Road’, Belloc ‘The South Country’. When the three writers came to be painted by Sir James Gunn, satirists had a field day, labelling the painting - “Baring, Overbearing (Chesterton) and Beyond Bearing (Belloc)”.
Before WW1 Baring contributed a hilarious series of articles in the Morning Post which were later gathered into a book published in 1913 called The Lost Diaries, a spoof conceit purporting to be the discovered lost diaries of a number of famous historical and literary figures ranging from George Washington to Sherlock Holmes. Equally amusing are the short stories, also published in the Morning Post, and gathered in Orpheus in Mayfair (1909). Particularly pertinent in 2016 is the piece entitled A Chinaman on Oxford. Happily these stories, like The Lost Diaries have been digitalised and can be read online.
Travelling widely in Europe as he did, Baring was incredulous that war could be contemplated but when it became a fact, he threw himself wholeheartedly into it. In his mind there was no finer way to serve one’s country than to fight or perhaps die for it. Thus, at the beginning of August 1914 and at the age of 41 he deliberated as to where he should make his contribution; should it be in Russia, which he knew so intimately, or in France? Believing he could get into the war more quickly by deciding on France he called on an old friend who just happened to be the Director Military Training at the War Office. “I told him that I wanted to go to France and that I could speak 4-5 languages. I heard nothing for a week and then on August 8th I was told to report and that I was to go to France next day.” Baring was assigned to the Intelligence Corps as a Lieutenant and attached to the HQ of the fledgling Royal Flying Corps in order to make arrangements for an air presence in France. With this news he called at Downing Street to make his farewells to the Prime Minister’s son, his great friend Raymond Asquith who he had met at Oxford. Tragically, Raymond Asquith, like Bron Herbert and so many of ‘The Coterie’, would also be killed in the war.
As a man of the pen, it is all the more surprising that Baring is credited as one of the architects of the formation of the future Royal Air Force. By his own admission he knew nothing about the Royal Flying Corps or even that there was one. He also confessed not being able to read maps and was well aware of his deficiencies as a soldier. However, he had the unique ability to get on with people and initially his role was that of an interpreter; liaising with the French forces and with the mayors of local towns to get approval to requisition land for airfields and buy provisions for the squadrons which were to follow. To facilitate the negotiations and pay for what was immediately needed, one of his fellow officers had with him a portmanteau full of gold!
Initially he worked with the handful of staff led by his old friend Lt General Sir David Henderson, acting as his general factotum. When Henderson was ordered back to England to reorganise the Royal Flying Corps there, he was succeeded by General Trenchard. Trenchard, a solitary figure who found it difficult to socialise was initially unimpressed with Baring and considered getting rid of him within a month . Instead Baring became Trenchard’s greatest friend and an indispensible aide, earning the RAF saying “Make a note of that Baring.”
Baring’s account of the war, HQ RFC (published in 1920) is a hugely enjoyable read. Written from notes and scribbling in his diary, it combines a military narrative with observations on people, the landscape and the beauty and the horror of what he witnessed. Often very funny and sometimes very poignant it vividly describes establishing an air force from scratch close to the front line. “A lovely and really hot day. We went for a long tour (of the airfields). The birds sang and the poppies flared in the wine-covered clover, and tethered cows made a sleeping noise. Clips are wanted for the clock-mounting on the FE-2B. Longcraft was shot at while he was in a kite balloon by a Lewis gun and I suppose someone must have let off the gun.” (22nd June 1916)
His duties as a staff officer did not allow him to write articles for the newspapers but he did contribute poems, sometimes in memory of fallen pilots. His lengthy poem ‘In Memoriam’ in tribute to his friend Auberon Herbert, Lord Lucas was published in full in The Morning Post.
Towards the end of 1918 he assisted with the establishment of the Indian Air Force and was awarded an OBE for his services with the RFC during the war. In 1925 he was made an honorary wing commander in the Royal Air Force. In 1935 he was awarded the French Legion of Honour. It was through his friendship with Bron Herbert’s sister, Nan that Baring took Pickwick Cottage in College Road, Dulwich when the war ended. Nan Herbert had inherited the title of Baroness Lucas after her brother’s death and had moved into Bell House next door, in 1916. The following year she had married a Royal Flying Corps officer, Lt Col Howard Cooper.
During the three years that he lived at Pickwick Cottage Maurice Baring wrote both HQ RFC, and The Puppet Show of Memory. He also found time to write the novel Passing By and organised his collection of poems 1914-1919. His book The Lonely Lady of Dulwich (1934) uses Pickwick Cottage as the setting of the for the house in which the subject of the book resides - “People who would see her walking in Dulwich Village and Dulwich Park would wonder who she was and what her story had been - that is to say if she had a story which they thought unlikely. The called her the Lonely Lady”.
He lived for ten years in Rottingdean (where is also unknown) and was debilitated by Parkinson's Disease for fifteen years, nevertheless he continued writing until his condition became chronic in the last few years. He died amongst his family in Scotland in 1945.