Maurice Baring Remembered

Riches I crave not, neither power, nor fame, nor even love, having tasted the sweetness and bitterness thereof, but a farm where trees give shade in the summer and provide logs for the winter, enough for a blazing hearth.—Maurice Baring

Paul Horgan’s Maurice Baring Restored (1969) is a rare collection of literary morsels rescued from obscurity. You can still find copies at the bigger libraries and at used book dealers, and I recommend it as a nice introduction to this British writer who was a contemporary of Belloc and Chesterton. But alas, even Horgan’s aim of restoring Baring has itself fallen into insignificance. I’m sure a lot of it had to do with timing.

The intensely sensitive, cultured and moral outlook that Baring championed, and which had a steady market through the 1940s, was suddenly passé. Although a best-selling author of over a dozen novels, a new generation of readers and critics expected something quite different from his Edwardian sense of mature restraint. Horgan sums it up well:

The love affairs [depicted in many of Baring’s books] are anguished and deep, the sense of desire and its tyranny are conveyed almost to a painful point—and yet there is not one word or line devoted to physical sex, not one example of what has been called ‘the obligatory scene’ in more recent fiction.

Horgan’s lengthy introduction is the best summary of the author’s life and work I’ve come across. Baring was loving, generous and honorable. He also possessed a zest for life and an insuppressible sense of humor, which extended from recondite literary witticisms to unabashed slapstick. It is ironic that a man who washed up in the diplomatic service was such a genius at “private diplomacy,” and made friends wherever he went—men and women, English and foreigner, adults and children. To quote Horgan further:

Personal discovery of the great artists and their work became in Baring’s books as in his life a dominant power, and few novelists have made more real the private experience of an awakening to the sound, the humanizing force, of literature and music. Beethoven, Heine, Tennyson, Swinburne, Schubert, the Russian poets, novelists, and playwrights, all ‘happen’ to his fictional characters, as they did to him life, as cataclysmic events after which they are never again the same. For him the arts were not mere pastime or entertainment—they were profoundly effectual encounters in his own growth and discovery.

As with any anthology there is the danger that it will appear like a collection of literary amputations. I think Horgan’s selection was a judicious one, though the excerpts from Baring’s book R.F.C. H.Q., recounting his days as a wing commander in the First World War, are far too brief. I think the best thing is the inclusion of complete text of The Lonely Lady of Dulwich, a short novel which will give the reader a better taste for his fiction than any amount of chopped-out passages.

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