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Julian Grenfell

by Nicholas Mosley
Persephone book no:

10 11 12

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9780953478095

This biography of the First World War poet Julian Grenfell, first published in 1976, is, we believe, one of the best biographies of recent times – partly because so much of it is about his mother, the fascinating but maddening Ettie Desborough. It is quite short compared with many modern biographies, and very readably written.

The subtitle is 'His life and the times of his death' and by that, as the author explains in a new Preface, he 'meant to convey the idea that Julian Grenfell's short life was circumscribed by the time into which he was born; that to a young man from Julian's background who grew up in the years leading to the First World War, the style and attitudes of the society around him were such that the chance of death was something almost to be welcomed as a way of dealing with the predicaments that confronted him.'

Julian and his generation seemed to want to die in battle: to help the reader towards an understanding of this is the main theme of the book. It also brings Edwardian society to life, as well as describing in detail his relationship with his mother: this is the strongest element in Julian Grenfell, stronger even than the theme of the welcoming of war.


The fabric for Julian Grenfell was designed in the year of his birth, 1888. It is a blockprinted cotton velveteen attributed to Thomas Wardle, who had worked with William Morris, a favourite of Julian's parents' friends, 'The Souls'. It is called 'Poppies' – the flower that would later become the symbol of the millions killed in the 1914-18 war.

Picture Caption

Julian Grenfell with his mother Ettie Desborough

Read What Readers Say

Rachel of Winterley via Goodreads

I found this thoroughly absorbing, and at times quite shocking in its portrayal of particular social attitudes to family and to war and to what was expected of young men, prior to WWI. The mother of Julian is in some ways an absolute monster, but you can't help but recognise the trauma of her own childhood and past and the fact that these things have repercussions down the generations. A wonderful insight into a world view that seems in many ways totally alien to us now…

The late Phillip Toynbee

Mosley is very good at explaining why Grenfell loved war so much; and why this chronically morose and nerve-ridden man fully accepted that war involved being killed as well as killing… Nicholas Mosley has penetrated a great mass of material, some of it shamelessly doctored by Lady Desborough to suggest that no amount of tiffs could mar the pure love of her eldest son for his mother. If he did continue to love her right up to his death it must have been a desperate and spellbound love indeed. After reading this book it is hard not to feel that the hatred went much deeper. By raising such fundamental issues as these the author has given his subject a pathos and a grandeur which should do much to overshadow…the legend…of the immolated poet; a young man who came second only to Rupert Brooke in the pantheon of the nobly dead who had joyfully ‘given’ their lives in the Great War

Margaret via Goodreads

Julian Grenfell was a young Englishman who died in World War I, having written one of the war's most famous poems, "Into Battle". In this biography, Nicholas Mosley is interested in examining what led Julian, his peers, and his family to believe that to kill and die in war was a desirable, even a splendid, thing.I see why Persephone reprinted the book. Their focus on women's literature may make this seem an odd choice, a biography of a man by another man, but Mosley spends just as much time on Julian's mother Ettie as he does on Julian, seeing her as the key to Julian's character. He provides a good analysis of the mindset of the times, using Ettie and Julian as his exemplars.

Categories: Biography History Men (books about) Men (books by) Mothers WWI

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