Robert Graves (1895-1985) – poet, author and pupil at Charterhouse

Robert Graves, 1914 (Permission of Charterhouse School Archive)

Robert von Ranke Graves was the author of the famous war memoir Goodbye to All That (1929). Born in Wimbledon, the 1901 census records the Graves family as living at 1 Lauriston Road, with a cook, lady’s nurse, sick nurse, children’s maid and a parlour maid.

Graves attended King’s College School, Wimbledon before entering Gownboys House at Charterhouse school, Godalming, as a Junior Foundation Scholar in 1909. He was bullied because of his German connections and his friendship with a younger fellow choirboy. In response, Graves learnt to box and joined the school poetry society. Many of his early poems were published in Charterhouse’s magazine, The Carthusian.

War service

Front cover of Charles Mundye (ed), Robert Graves War Poems, 2016

Graves left Charterhouse on 28 July 1914, four days after his 19th birthday. He was inclined to pacifism but just a few days later, on the outbreak of war, he was granted a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. On the Western Front in late 1915 Graves met the poet Siegfried Sassoon; they began reading each other’s poetry and even discussed the possibility of living together after the war.

On 20 July 1916, after a bloody trench engagement in the Battle of the Somme, Graves, now a captain, was so badly wounded that the official military record reported he had ‘died of gunshot wounds’. His family were informed, but in fact Graves had survived and had been sent back to England to convalesce at Queen Alexandra’s Hospital, Highgate. Here, he was shocked to read his own obituary in The Times and quickly submitted a notice to say that he was in fact alive! Whilst convalescing, Graves’ first volume of poetry, Over the Brazier, was published. He returned to duty but in 1917 was hospitalized with shell-shock. He was seconded to garrison duty and in late 1918 survived Spanish Flu.

Sexuality

Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves by Lady Ottoline Morrell, September 1920
© National Portrait Gallery

Graves blamed the public school system for institutionalising homosexual behaviour. It has since been argued that he was not bisexual but a man who ‘went straight after dabbling with homosexuality’, though some believe that he chose to present a heterosexual front because homosexuality was illegal at that time and if discovered could result in a criminal record.

The intensity of the early relationship between Graves and Sassoon is documented in their letters and biographies, and demonstrated in Graves’ Fairies and Fusiliers (1917). Sassoon remarked upon the ‘heavy sexual element’ within it. Through Sassoon, Graves also became a friend of the war poet, Wilfred Owen.

Graves married Nancy Nicholson, sister of the artist Ben Nicholson, in late 1918 and they had four children. However, by 1926 they had formed an unconventional ménage à trois with the American poet, Laura Riding, who accompanied the family to Egypt. Graves’ memoir Goodbye to All That included details of his life at Charterhouse and the First World War and was published in 1929 and soon after this Laura and Graves moved to Majorca. Here he wrote his most successful historical novel, I Claudius. The relationship with Laura did not last and Graves later married Beryl Hodge, the wife of his literary partner, Alan Hodge; they had four children.

Front cover of Robert Graves’ memoir Goodbye to all That, 1929 (private collection)

Graves died at the age of 90 in 1985, in Majorca. His name is commemorated on the War Poets Memorial in Westminster Abbey.

Graves’ poems, letters, photographs and war service records can be viewed online at The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, based at the University of Oxford.

Sources

Charterhouse School hold Robert Graves’ school records and The Carthusian magazine https://www.charterhouse.org.uk/about-us/charterhouse-history/about-us/charterhouse-history/archives

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive features copies of Robert Graves’ correspondence and poems http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/

Godalming Museum have a web page featuring Robert Graves’ local links with Charterhouse School http://www.godalmingmuseum.org.uk/index.php?page=robert-graves

Robert Graves features in the Imperial War Museum’s ‘Lives of the First World War’ project database https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/1424123

For discussion of Graves’ war service see https://fantastic-writers-and-the-great-war.com/war-experiences/robert-graves/ and http://archive.camdennewjournal.com/gulliver-error-graves

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