JEAN FINDLAY ON C K SCOTT-MONCRIEFF
Marcel Proust was the great French modernist, both metaphysical and poetic, whose streams of consciousness in Remembrance of Things Past would lead the way in the development of twentieth-century literature.
In a relatively short but surprisingly happy life, Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff found the time and energy to translate his seven volumes in seven years, to the delight of Proust's followers in the USA and elsewhere who continue to pore over his texts.
Scott Moncrieff was born in 1889, the youngest of three sons of a sheriff and his wife, a contributor of short stories to Blackwood's Magazine who was told off by Robert Louis Stevenson for using North Britain in the address of their Robert Adam-designed home in Polmont. Sent to Winchester, young Charles found himself different from everyone else because he was Scottish and passionate about poetry, falling in love with his friends and being picked up while on a visit to London by Robert Ross, an acolyte of Oscar Wilde who introduced him to a wide circle of poets including Robert Graves and Walter de la Mare and enabled him to have his own poetry published. However his story about two boys falling in love with each other was pulped, preventing him from going to Oxbridge so he followed in his father's footsteps by studying law at Edinburgh.
In his student days he kept a diary which showed him keeping up with the Wilde coterie after Oscar's arrest prompted the family to flee to Montreux, changing their names to Holland. Both of his brothers married, one a vet and the other a vicar. His uncle Sir Colin Scott Moncrieff was a civil engineer whose work in Egypt yielded the mummy now in the National Museum of Scotland.
Going to war, Scott Moncrieff was at first full of hope, sending many entertaining letters and light-hearted poetry home. In 1915 he converted to Catholicism in an era when everyone was either Protestant or Catholic and Church of England chaplains stayed behind the lines but Catholic priests were at the front to deliver the last rites. In the Arras campaign of April 1917, he was badly wounded, carried on a stretcher between banks of dead horses to a dressing station, and was fortunate to keep his leg until he reached the safety of Calais. From the window of a hospital room at Carlton House Terrace, he could see the War Office hugely expanded by the addition of shacks on its roof, and being unfit to return to the Front was able to join the propaganda machine at what became MI6 while being able to contribute to G K Chesterton's New Witness and T S Eliot's Criterion magazine. Having saved Graves from going back to France, he attended the historian's wedding in 1918, but Wilfred Owen was not so fortunate : inspired by Owen's use of assonance (which takes place when two or more words, close to one another repeat the same vowel sound but start with different consonant sounds), Scott Moncrieff realised that he must prevent a return to the Front by finding a home posting, but Owen was only a captain and these were the last days of the war, so the poet with whom Scott Moncrieff was in love returned to France where he was killed after the cease-fire.
Having narrowly escaped the attention of the authorities, Scott Moncrieff now determined to go to Italy, where the climate would be kinder to his impaired health and he hoped to live by doing translations. He lived in various parts while D H Lawrence was in Florence, Compton Mackenzie in Capri, before finally settling in Rome. This was a time of a febrile political atmosphere in a country which he described as being akin to being run by a gang of adolescents on cocaine. The rise of Mussolini had been underestimated back home, and the British Passport Office provided a convenient front for Scott Moncrieff and others to engage in spying, his great service being to learn from chatting to sailors at Livorno that Il Duce was smuggling weapons to rebels in The Yemen so as to undermine British rule there.
Jean was nearing completion of her book when she discovered a mass of letters between Scott Moncrieff and Oscar Wilde's son Vivien Holland indicating an early affair. Passage of new obscenity laws in 1927 meant difficulty in getting overt material published : Sodom and Gomorrah became the Cities of the Plain, and when Chatto and Windus refused to publish this Volume of Proust,Scott Moncrieff was able to turn to US publisher Albert Boni. At that time he also translated and promoted the dramatist Luigi Pirandello. Scott Moncrieff was supporting the education of his nine nieces and nephews, brother John having died in an accidental shooting while Colin was now an impecunious vicar. Postcards reveal him to have been a witty correspondent with Noel Coward a neighbour who named his cat Proust and a wide circle of friends who held him in great affection, but his life was cut short when he contracted stomach cancer, dying during 1930 in Rome where he is buried.
A portrait painted in 1922 was subsequently presented to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and shows Charles Scott Moncrieff wearing the signet ring that is now in the possession of his great-nephew, Saltire Society National Convenor John Scott Moncrieff.