“I remember his hat was held together with safety pins,” says Sister Jessica Gatty. “And his movements were rather jerky. His driving was most erratic – if you went out in the car with him, it was perfectly possible to end up in a cornfield.” These are Sister Jessica’s memories of Siegfried Sassoon, the war poet with whom she had an intense friendship in the last decade of his life. She describes their relationship as “spiritual”.
A new opera about Sassoon has shed new light on this little-known episode of his life, a relationship that caused skirmishes in his family but transformed everything for the young woman involved, who was more than 50 years his junior. Silver Birch, being performed at Garsington Opera in Buckinghamshire this weekend, draws on the testimony of Sister Jessica, who was Sassoon’s niece and goddaughter. Jessica Duchen, the librettist, says 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.”
Sassoon served on the western front from 1914-16 and was decorated for bravery but grew increasingly horrified by the realities of the first world war, particularly after the death of his younger brother Hamo in Gallipoli. He was for a time a conscientious objector. After the war, he continued to write novels and poetry, as well as bringing the poetry of Wilfred Owen – who was killed just days before the Armistice – to a wider audience.
In 1933, Sassoon surprised his friends and relatives by falling in love with a woman called Hester Gatty, 19 years younger than him. Before this, his lovers had been men, including the actor Ivor Novello and an aristocrat called Stephen Tennant who was among Evelyn Waugh’s inspirations for Brideshead Revisited’s Sebastian Flyte. But Sassoon had always hoped to have children, and his marriage to Hester produced a son, George.
Jessica Gatty was the daughter of Hester’s brother, and when she was born in 1938 Sassoon was asked to be her godfather. During her childhood, though, he and Hester split up, so she never saw him. “I did know he was a poet,” says Jessica, “and very famous, and that he was homosexual.”
Then came a chance meeting in 1958. Jessica, then 21, was staying with her parents in Yorkshire when Sassoon, who was now in his early 70s and had recently become a Catholic, came for the weekend. Jessica, although an atheist from a young age, was “on a pilgrimage of some sort” trying to work out the meaning of her life and what to do with it.
Their meeting had a profound effect. “I knew he had something,” she says. “Part of him seemed to connect to something much deeper. I had lots of questions and I felt he was someone with answers.” One day, walking in the garden, Sassoon showed her a petal and said : “You have to believe that someone created that.” “I recognised at that moment that, yes, someone had,” she says. “Siegfried was right.”
- Sister Jessica Gatty. Photograph : Martin Godwin for the Guardian
She became a regular visitor to Sassoon’s home in Heytesbury, Wiltshire, and was drawn to Catholicism. This didn’t go down well with the Gatty family : they had resented Sassoon for his treatment of Hester, and now resented the fact he seemed to be pulling Jessica towards Rome. In 1961, when Jessica became Catholic, her parents were very unhappy. “They blamed Siegfried,” she says. “They didn’t seem to think I might have made up my own mind.”
Sassoon introduced Jessica to Mother Margaret Mary, an Assumption nun with whom he had corresponded for several years before his conversion. At first, says Jessica, she was afraid of meeting a nun. “But Mother Margaret Mary was not someone I needed to fear : she was a very loving woman and we began a correspondence.”
Sassoon did not live to see the final result of this introduction : by the time Jessica became an Assumption nun herself in 1976, he had been dead nine years. But he had seen how important their relationship had been to her. “I think it gave him a great deal of happiness that he was able to help me so much,” says Sister Jessica, now 79.
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.”
Today she lives in a convent in Twickenham and has spent her life as a nun focusing 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.”
Sometimes, she says, he would read his poems. “But not very well. He used to mumble.” And he seemed rather disappointed by his legacy. “He didn’t like the fact he was only going to be remembered for his war poetry – he felt the rest of his output hadn’t made enough impact.” At Heytesbury, she remembers playing the piano for him and having quince jam on bread for tea.
Silver Birch, which has a 180-strong cast, provides a contemporary take on Sassoon’s war credo. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re in 1917 or 2017,” says Roxanna Panufnik, its composer, “the emotional, physical and traumatic effects of war are the same. War is about what it has always been about : waste, futility, the loss of young lives.”
As for the family ructions, Silver Birch is perhaps something of an atonement. Sister Jessica isn’t the only member of the Gatty family to have some input : her nephew Stephen Bucknill, great-nephew of Sassoon, is a member of the chorus.