How to spot great talent. James Lees-Milne and the Fitzgerald Rule.
Finding good talent is important. If we believe that growth is essential to moral progress, we need great talent. Sometimes it's easy to spot people who will become stars. Many creatives arrive fully formed at a young age. Think of Pride and Prejudice, written by a nineteen-year-old. Or Hart Crane. Along with all the young sports stars and pop singers who burst out like a supernova at an impossibly young age, they are examples of the Mozart category of talent.
This is part of a binary system that balances the young achievements of Mozart (who was a star performer and composer from early childhood) with Beethoven, who matured into his talents and produced his great work much later than Mozart did. The Beethovens are often cited as examples to reassure people who might still make an achievement despite not arriving fully formed.
I think there is a third category of people who are very slow developers. Beethoven, after all, was a pretty ferociously talented person. It's a matter of degree that he matured later than Mozart. There's a fundamental difference between that and someone who simply moves slowly and develops so late or in such an unusual way that they may never have arrived.
James Lees-Milne is an example of this third type. Milne left Oxford with a third-class degree and few prospects. By the end of his life he was a pillar of the National Trust, who had acquired many of the great houses the Trust now owns, as well a celebrated diarist, and the author of one of the best English memoirs ever written.
His career at the National Trust started when he was in his twenties, but got interrupted by time in the army, which ended with him being invalided out. So he went back to the Trust, the sort of mediocre young man who was hardly marked out to become a Beethoven. Besides, he was already in his mid-thirties.
However, at this point, two things changed. He had a double revelation, one religious, one architectural. As well as converting to Catholicism, he realised he had a ‘deep atavistic compassion for ancient architecture so vulnerable and transient’, and decided to devote his ‘energies and abilities, such as they were, to preserving the country houses of England’.
Despite finding his purpose, as we would say now, things did not start promisingly, as Rosemary Hill says:
The National Trust, which had been founded by admirers of Ruskin and William Morris to preserve threatened areas of countryside, had, at first, no remit to take on buildings. With its ethos of inspired amateurism, however, this ‘dedicated group of happy-go-lucky enthusiasts’, as Lees-Milne called them, was more acceptable, when the time came, to beleaguered house owners faced first with wartime requisitioning and then, after the war, with high taxation, death duties and staff shortages, than a state body would have been. Handsome, charming, tactful and determined, Lees-Milne was brilliant at ‘wheedling’ his way into owners’ confidence. Some of them fell in love with him. Even so, and despite his willingness to go to lengths and indeed ‘depths’ which, he hinted darkly, might shock the Trust if they knew the full extent of the ‘extreme zeal’ with which he pursued its interests, the land-owning classes were often unreceptive or simply baffled.
After the war, when a combination of the ruins of war and the impending threat of taxation changed the set of economic incentives faced by the land owners, the Trust started receiving many houses, and Milne became the man who assessed them for suitability.
In this work, he often relied more on instinct than knowledge: ‘with no pretensions to judge what is genuine and what fake in furniture, I rely upon instinct, sharpened by years of experience, rather than upon imbibed knowledge from textbooks.’
We must remember here that Milne was a (sort of) member of the upper classes. He had been born in 1908, the grandson of a baronet, and his memoirs shows an idyllic old-fashioned childhood. He spent the rest of his life living in a reactionary haze of nostalgia. Like other Catholic converts of his generation, his feelings about the past were deeply aesthetic as well as spiritual. He knew the people and the territory.
He was also, however, a little shady about his origins and was just as much the son of industrial money as he was to the manor born. Perhaps this ambivalent status as a newly arrived member of the noble classes gave him as much inside and outside sensibility as he needed to acquire the properties.
This temperament and childhood was then combined with ten years working for the Trust before country houses began to be left to them en masse. The same quiet obsessiveness that had seen him as an only child absorbed in bible stories meant he slowly developed into a connoisseur of what it would take to qualify as the sort of country home worth preserving.
This form of development was fundamental to Milne and he often wrote about himself as a slow developer in his diary. Rosemary Hill again:
In one of Lees-Milne’s regular pessimistic self-assessments, amid laments about his loss of hair and declining libido at 40, he noted that despite it all his mental faculties, ‘never first-rate, are better than they have ever been’. ‘All my life,’ he adds, ‘I have been a slow developer.’ It is a verdict that Bloch seems to endorse but the impression from the biography is not so much that Lees-Milne was slow, as that he had a lot of ground to cover to get from where he started to somewhere he wanted to be. To the very end he seems to have been unsure that he had arrived.
Like many innovators and inventors, there was no established path for Milne to take. His job never existed until he took it and it only became the sort of job he could thrive in when he was nearly forty. It was ideally suited to someone of his background and education, a reasonably rare combination. As Rosemary Hill says, this meant he had a large gap between who he started as and who he became. It wasn't even clear to him what he ought to do until after the war.
This is an example of the Fitzgerald Rule, and it applies to Milne twice: once in his work at the Trust, once as a diarist and memoirist. Although he was a famous writer, he never had a poem published in a magazine, despite submitting them for most of his life. Perseverance was not a guarantee' he needed the other conditions to be right. Born in another time or another family, he might not have made his contribution.
As it is, he is an example of someone who created a role for themselves by not trying to. Like Penelope Fitzgerald's novel, his work at the Trust was one of a kind and the product of his own combination of experiences. His clumsy, charming, immoral personality was well-matched to the task at hand. Someone more aspiring might well have arrived earlier to the task but found themselves poorly matched to the people involved.
At first, Milne wasn't aware he was preparing for his work, and then after the war he was able to try it all over again, but he saw it all in different terms. If we are looking to find great talent, we should look beyond the Mozart and Beethoven examples and think about the people who will fit the many odd and perhaps indescribable niches that get thrown up in periods of change.
Like creatures that evolve to fit a peculiar niche, people who fit the Fitzgerald Rule are optimised for something we might not realise need optimising for. Milne can't really be described as brilliant. There was no competition. Talent is often thought of excelling in forms of direct competition. But as with evolution, people like Milne excel as themselves. They are wonderful within their own niche.
This is arete. Rather than seeing talent in this category in the same way we see other talent, we must recognise them as incommensurable. The reason why James Lees Milne was difficult to predict is because he wasn't himself yet.