The Guardian reports on the debut of an opera based on the life of WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon this weekend at the Garsington Opera in Buckinghamshire. Waugh and Sassoon were contemporaries but not friends, although they were connected through their friendships with others, most notably Ronald Knox and Katharine Asquith. Sassoon lived for many years at Heytesbury, Wiltshire near Mells in Somerset, where Knox spent his last years as a guest of Katharine Asquith. Knox helped arrange Sassoon’s instruction for conversion to Roman Catholicism in the late 1950s when he was too ill to take on the task himself. Sassoon, Knox and Asquith are all buried in the Mells Anglican churchyard next to Asquith’s ancestral home.
The Guardian article claims a further connection through Stephen Tennant with whom Sassoon had an affair in the 1920. According to the Guardian, Tennant “was among Evelyn Waugh’s inspirations for Brideshead Revisited’s Sebastian Flyte.” That seems a bit far-fetched. The flamboyant Tennant probably contributed more to the character of Anthony Blanche or Ambrose Silk or some of the BYPs in Vile Bodies than to the melancholic Sebastian.
Sassoon’s religious conversion forms a background to the opera which is entitled “Silver Birch.” According to the Guardian’s article, written by Joanna Moorhead, he developed an attachment to his niece and god-daughter Jessica Gatty late in life and was instrumental in her own conversion to the Catholic faith, something about which her family were not particularly happy at the time. She later became a nun, after Sassoon’s death, and continues to live in a convent near Twickenham where she
focuses on ecological issues, of which her godfather would have approved. She remembers him as a shy man who rarely looked his listener in the eye, but who could certainly talk – often about the first world war. “The weight of war was still there. It was obvious that what he’d seen and experienced in the trenches was still very traumatic.”… In her view, Sassoon’s entire output was a quest towards God. “His poetry turned into prayer,” she says. “The attention that was there as he wrote poetry became the attention that turned to the source of poetry.”
Sister Jessica Gatty, as she is now, was the source of information for the libretto of the opera. According to the librettist Jessica Duchen:
talking to Sister Jessica helped draw out the poet’s personality. “She helped me understand his life and motivations. It was wonderful to meet someone who had been so immeasurably influenced by him.”