‘ . . . it is very exciting, and a thing a man should not have
missed, but now I’ve seen it and been there and done the
dashing, I begin to wonder whether it is any place for a civilized
man, and to remember about hot baths and strawberries
and my morning Times.’
. . . thus wrote Patrick Shaw Stewart from the horrors of Gallipoli in 1915. Two years later the ‘dashing’ ended with his death in action on the Western Front: he was twenty-nine. As Miles Jebb says in this perceptive and long overdue biography, Patrick Shaw Stewart was the cleverest and most interesting of a group of friends doomed to be killed in the First World War.
Shaw Stewart was born into the Scottish gentry. A natural scholar, his sure-footed progress through Eton, Balliol and All Souls led him to Barings Bank, of which he was a managing director aged twentyfour.
His close friends included Rupert Brooke, Raymond Asquith, Julian Grenfell, Duff Cooper, Diana Manners, Violet Asquith and Vita Sackville-West. Despite the camaraderie, he was less sure of himself with women, defining his relationships with them as ‘notable failures and transient successes’. The two women most central to understanding this most complex of men were his Scottish nurse ‘Dear’, and the beautiful society hostess Ettie Desborough, who was twenty-two years older.
What Patrick Shaw Stewart, An Edwardian Meteor so brilliantly
evokes is the final flush of the Edwardian aristocracy before its sudden immersion in the realities of war. Shaw Stewart himself described his contemporaries as a ‘hustling, intriguing, lusting, coveting, moneyloving herd’. But war transformed them, cutting through the carapace of cynicism and privilege behind which they often hid. Perhaps their greatest legacy is their correspondence – often revealing, occasionally intimate, always honest – which brings their world into focus and stands full square at the heart of this book.
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