Harold Nicolson

Harold Nicolson books and biography

Harold Nicolson

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Blue plaque in Ebury Street, London
Blue plaque in Ebury Street, London

Sir Harold George Nicolson KCMG (November 21, 1886 – May 1, 1968) was a British diplomatist, author and politician. Nicolson was instrumental in preparing Britain's policy towards Greece [1]. His philhellenism was matched by notable Turkophobia [2]. He was the husband of writer Vita Sackville-West, and is best remembered today for that relationship, immortalised in their son's book, Portrait of a Marriage.


Nicolson was born in Teheran, the younger son of a diplomat father Arthur Nicolson, 1st Baron Carnock. He was educated at Wellington College and Balliol College, Oxford. In 1909 he joined the diplomatic service, in which he held various posts, participating in a junior capacity in the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

In 1913, he married the writer Vita Sackville-West, who encouraged his literary ambitions. He published a biography of French poet Paul Verlaine in 1921, to be followed by studies of other literary figures such as Tennyson, Byron, Swinburne and Sainte-Beuve. In 1933, he wrote an account of the Paris conference entitled Peacemaking, 1919. He was knighted in 1953, as a reward for writing the official biography of George V.

Nicolson and his wife practiced what today we would call an open marriage. They each had a number of same-sex affairs, and once Harold had to follow Vita to France, where she had 'eloped' with Violet Trefusis, to try to win her back. However, they remained happy together – in fact, they were famously devoted to each other, writing almost every day when they were separated, for example, because of long diplomatic postings abroad. Eventually, he gave up diplomacy, partly so they could live together in England. They had two sons, Nigel, also a politician and writer, and Benedict, an art historian.

In the 1930s, he and his wife acquired and moved to Sissinghurst Castle, in the rural depths of Kent, the county known as the garden of England. There they created the renowned gardens that are now run by the National Trust.

Political career

In 1931, Harold Nicolson joined Sir Oswald Mosley and his recently formed New Party. He stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in the general election that year and edited the party newspaper. Nicolson ceased to support Mosley when the latter formed the British Union of Fascists the following year. Nicolson entered the House of Commons as National Labour Party Member of Parliament for Leicester West in the 1935 election. In the latter half of the 1930s he was among a relatively small number of MPs who alerted the country to the threat of fascism. More a follower of Anthony Eden in this regard than of Winston Churchill, he nevertheless was a friend (though not an intimate) of Churchill and often supported his efforts in the Commons to stiffen British resolve and support rearmament. He became Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of Information in Churchill's 1940 war time government of national unity, serving under Cabinet member Duff Cooper for approximately a year; thereafter he was a well-respected backbencher, especially on foreign policy issues given his early and prominent diplomatic career. He lost his seat in the 1945 election. Having joined the Labour Party, he stood in the Croydon North by-election in 1948, but lost once again.

Later life and legacy

After Nicolson's last attempt to enter Parliament, he continued with an extensive social schedule and his program of writing, which included books, a regular weekly piece for The Spectator and book reviews.

His younger son was the publisher and writer Nigel Nicolson, who published works by and about his parents, including Portrait of a Marriage, their correspondence and Nicolson's diary. The latter is one of the pre-eminent diaries by British authors in the 20th century and an invaluable source on British political history from 1930 through the 1950s, and most especially in the run-up to World War II and during the War. It is perhaps this diary for which Nicholson will most be remembered, as the author was acquaintance, friend or intimate to such figures as Ramsay MacDonald, David Lloyd George, Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill, along with a great number of literary and artistic figures.

There is a brown "blue plaque" commemorating him and Vita Sackville-West on their house in Ebury Street, London SW1.


  • Paul Verlaine (1921)
  • Sweet Waters (1921) novel
  • Tennyson - Aspects of His Life, Character and Poetry (1923)
  • Byron: The Last Journey (1924)
  • Swinburne (1926)
  • Some People (1927)
  • The Development of English Biography (Hogarth Press, 1927) Hogarth Lectures on Literature No. 4
  • Portrait of a Diplomatist (1930) on Sir Arthur Nicholson
  • Swinburne and Baudelaire (1930) Zaharoff Lecture
  • People and Things: Wireless Talks (1931)
  • The Changing World 2 , The New Spirit in Literature (1932)
  • Peacemaking 1919 (1933)
  • Public Faces (1933) novel
  • Curzon: The Last Phase, 1919 – 1925: A Study in Post-War Diplomacy (1934)
  • Dwight Morrow (1935)
  • Politics in the Train (1936)
  • Germany and the Rhineland, a Record of Addresses Delivered at Meetings Held at Chatham House (1936) with Norman Angell and others
  • Helen's Tower (1937) biography of Lord Dufferin
  • Small Talk (1937)
  • The Meaning Of Prestige (1937) Rede Lecture
  • Diplomacy: a Basic Guide to the Conduct of Contemporary Foreign Affairs (1939)
  • Why Britain is at War (1939)
  • Marginal Comment (1939)
  • The Desire to Please: A Story of Hamilton Rowan and the United Irishmen (1943)
  • England, An Anthology (1944) editor
  • Friday Mornings 1941-1944 (1944)
  • Another World Than This (1945) anthology, editor with Vita Sackville-West
  • The Congress of Vienna: A Study in Allied Unity: 1812-1822 (1946)
  • The English Sense of Humor: An Essay (1946)
  • Tennyson's Two Brothers (1947) Leslie Stephen Lecture
  • Comments 1944-1948 (1948)
  • Benjamin Constant (1949)
  • King George V (1952)
  • The Evolution of Diplomatic Method (1954) Chichele Lectures 1953
  • Good Behaviour: Being A Study Of Certain Types Of Civility (1955)
  • The English Sense of Humour and other Essays (1956)
  • Journey to Java (1957)
  • Sainte-Beuve (1957)
  • The Age of Reason (1700-1789) (1960)
  • The Old Diplomacy and the New (1961) David Davies Memorial Institute of International Studies Lecture, March 1961
  • Kings, Courts and Monarchy (1962)
  • Diaries and Letters (1968), edited by Nigel Nicolson, published by Collins, London


We are inclined to judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their acts.


  1. ^ Erik Goldstein. "Great Britain and Greater Greece 1917-1920", The Historical Journal, Vol. 32, No. 2. (Jun., 1989), p. 341
  2. ^ Harold Nicolson, Peacemaking 1919, London 1933, p. 105 as cited in E. Goldstein, open citation, p. 341

See also

  • Orlando: A Biography

Further reading

  • Nigel Nicolson, Portrait of a Marriage, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973), ISBN 0-297-76645-7.
  • Nigel Nicolson, The Harold Nicolson Diaries 1907 - 1964, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004), (Phoenix Paperback, 2005),ISBN 0-75381-997-X
  • James Lees-Milne, Harold Nicolson, A Biography, (Chatto & Windus), 1980, Vol. I (1886-1929), ISBN 0-7011-2520-9; 1981, Vol. II (1930-1968), ISBN 0-7011-2602-7.
  • Nigel Nicolson (ed.), Vita and Harold. The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson 1910-1962 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1992), ISBN 0-297-81182-7.
  • David Cannadine: Portrait of More Than a Marriage: Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West Revisited. From Aspects of Aristocracy, pp.210-42. (Yale University Press, 1994), ISBN 0-300-05981-7.
  • Norman Rose, Harold Nicolson (Jonathan Cape, 2005), ISBN 0-224-06218-2.
  • Derek Drinkwater, Sir Harold Nicolson & International Relations, ( Oxford University Press, 2005), ISBN 0-19-927385-5.

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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