As a man Robert Graves is best described by his own words at the end of this autobiography:
“A conditioning in the Protestant morality of the English governing classes, though qualified by mixed blood, a rebellious nature, and an overriding poetic obsession is not easily outgrown.”
Other than from these his own words it is very hard to judge the person. Why? In this book he so candidly –or perhaps arrogantly?- talks about himself, about things so private and personal, that the reader is made to feel at times a voyeur. So, either the man thinks himself to stand so above the level of the common and ordinary folks, or really is acting candidly. I am not sure which option to pick as the correct one. In case of doubt, I resort to the quote above.
Robert Graves was an excellent British writer. Never mind his being another typical and regretable case of intellectual self-righteousness, of atheist aristocrats gone socialist. He carried the chip of Protestant morality over his shoulder all through his life, as the quote from the epilogue confirms, written many years later after the book. And this resentment wears heavily on his mood and opinions throughout the book. Even if mild mannered, calm, and not prone to adventure, vices or excesses, the anger flows constantly between lines. He never could maintain a steady job; until he could live on the income from his book writing he always lived on allowances, either from the government or from his parents and in-laws; he admitted to being unfit to take jobs which carried the burden of taking any orders; but talent he had, and success came, eventually, to allow him the life we had wanted: to be able to live on his books.
The author starts by telling about his life in the English public schools. This section is filled with those private anecdotes that we mentioned above and that he comments on so matter-of-factly. The second section is the largest and occupies his participation in the Great War, his ins and outs due to wounds and his relationships with people of diverse opinions regarding the war, that is, about pacifists and non-pacifists, obviously Graves being in the first group but –interestingly enough- in a not too outspoken way. The third part sees him marrying and having kids, living in England, trying to make a living, meeting other literary figures and celebrities, Lawrence (of Arabia) and Thomas Hardy being two of the most interesting cases. Finally, he moves with his family to teach in Egypt. But, as it was a job that involved taking orders, he would quit soon enough and return to England. There the book ends. The epilogue gives us a brief summary of his later life.
All in all, as I said before, it is not easy to pass judgment on the man. He is too honest, even if wrong. Or maybe, the other possibility, he was so convinced of his righteousness to dismiss any possible indictment on his person. His participation in the war, first as soldier and then as an officer, is one of those intriguing facts of his life that make it hard for us to figure him out: his active participation and his come-backs after being wounded many times tell openly about his valour and commitment to his country, yet his own opinion stood against any involvment in this war. What we do know, and what we do have here, is a very entertaining and interesting book that sheds light on British high society, their commitment and involvement in the First World War, about the British Empire in the beginning of the 20th century, and about some of the most interesting literary figures of the English language of those times.