Before Utterly Immoral, No. 2, Dr Hugh Cecil

Before Utterly Immoral, No. 2, Dr Hugh Cecil

June 30, 2022

Utterly Immoral is the first full biography of Robert Keable. However, three writers and academics (Dr James Douglas, Dr Hugh Cecil and Dr Tim Couzens) all started work on writing, or co-writing, full biographies, and for different reasons did not complete their work. I wrote about Dr James Douglas in a previous blog so next up is Hugh Cecil.

Hugh Cecil first contacted my father, Tony Keable-Elliott (Robert Keable’s first son) in December 1985 to explain he was writing a book on the British Novelists of the First World War ‘examining the ways in which they interpreted their experiences in fiction,’ and asking to meet up with my father to talk. His plan was to devote a chapter of a book to Robert Keable, saying at the time he believed ‘Simon Called Peter (was) the best picture of the difficulties facing padres on the Western Front at that time.’

Over the next few years my father invited Hugh to his house to discuss Robert Keable and to lend him some of the letters and photographs he had of his father. It is a testament to Hugh’s care and attention to detail that it was 8 years before he felt ready to send my father the ‘more or less finished’ draft of the chapter on Robert Keable and another two years before his book The Flower of Battle, How Britain Wrote the Great War, (Secker and Warburg, 1995) was published, to great acclaim.

Hugh had followed his father, Lord David Cecil (perhaps best known for his biography of Jane Austen), into academia, spending many years teaching modern history at Leeds University. The Flower of Battle was undoubtably his most well-known work although he also wrote, or co-wrote with his wife, a number of other books including Imperial Marriage and Rex Whistler at Mottisfont Abbey.

The 30-page chapter on Robert Keable, in The Flower of Battle, which he called A Parson’s Life Laid Bare: Robert Keable, is an excellent introduction to Robert Keable (and the main source for the over 5,000-word Wikipedia entry) but it was not the end to Hugh’s interest in the man. Soon after The Flower of Battle was published Hugh was contacted by Tim Couzens, a lecturer at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, who had come across Robert Keable whilst researching his book on the murder of a French Priest in Basutoland just after the First World War.

In 1996 Hugh and Tim travelled together to Tahiti and as early as December 1996 they were already discussing plans to write a short biography together of Robert Keable, (perhaps with the aid of a third party, the Dean of Carlisle) even though they both had other projects on the go.

In 1999 Hugh visited South Africa and Tim drove him into Lesotho to Hltose where Robert Keable had been the parish priest during and after the First World War. Hugh Cecil very kindly sent my father a small cross made from two pieces of wood found at the site of Robert Keable’s original parish church. In a letter at the time, he again repeated the plan for him and Tim to write a life of Robert Keable.

Although Hugh Cecil continued to gather research on Robert Keable for the next few years either his own projects, or those of Tim, prevented them from settling down to write their book.

Initially I had been daunted by the idea of writing my own biography of Robert Keable, knowing of Hugh and Tim’s plans, but by the beginning of 2016 I had completed a 125,000-word manuscript and perhaps presumptuously wrote to them to ask if them if they would be willing to read it. Generously they both agreed but tragically Tim died suddenly and around the same time Hugh start to develop progressive supranuclear palsy.

His illness and Tim’s death ended any plans Hugh had for a full biography of Robert Keable and he very generously offered to support me in my efforts. In 2018 he invited me to his house to hand over a ‘pile of notes’ he had on Robert Keable. When I went to collect them, I was surprised to find he had four full lever arch files worth of notes. As I took the notes home it felt like the passing of the baton. Hugh’s suggestion that I needed to heavily edit my biography, led me to rethink my approach and indirectly resulted in Utterly Immoral.

Hugh Cecil died in April 2020. My memory is of a very kind and gentle man. Quietly spoken but of strong opinions and convictions. Back in 1996 he wrote to me, ‘It looks as if, having been quite forgotten, Robert Keable is going to make a comeback – at least biographically!’ It may have taken another 25 years, but I hope to make that prophesy true.