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Sir Harold Mario Mitchell Acton CBE (5 July 1904 – 27 February 1994) was a British writer, scholar and dilettante perhaps most famous for being wrongly believed to have inspired (in whole) the character of "Anthony Blanche" in Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited (1945). Waugh himself wrote, "The characters in my novels often wrongly identified with Harold Acton were to a great extent drawn from Brian Howard". That being said, we must also note, that in a letter to Lord Baldwin, an elucidating Waugh reveals, "There is an aesthetic bugger who sometimes turns up in my novels under various names -- that was 2/3 Brian [Howard] and 1/3 Harold Acton. People think it was all Harold, who is a much sweeter and saner man [than Howard]." It would seem, that Waugh, like many other writers, peopled his novels with composite characters based upon individuals he personally knew and that while neither Howard nor Acton can be totally identified on a one-to-one basis with any particular character, neither can their influence, in large part or small measure, be completely ignored.
Acton was born into a prominent Anglo-Italian-American family at Villa La Pietra, his parents' house one mile outside the walls of Florence, Italy. He claimed that his great-great-grandfather was Commodore Sir John Acton, who was prime minister of Naples under Ferdinand IV, and grandfather of the Roman Catholic historian John Acton. However, the basis of this has been disputed.
Harold was in fact the great-great grandson of Sir John's younger brother Joseph Acton (1 Oct 1737-12 Jan 1830) via his eldest son Charles.
His father was the successful art collector and dealer Arthur Acton (1873–1953), the illegitimate son of Eugenio Acton. His mother Hortense Mitchell (1871–1962), was heiress to John J. Mitchell, the President of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank and also a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago who was appointed a member of the Federal Advisory Council. Arthur met Hortense in Chicago while helping to design the Italianate features of the bank's new building in 1896. The Mitchell fortune allowed Arthur to buy the remarkable Villa La Pietra on the hills of Florence, where Harold lived for much of his life. The only modern furniture in the villa was in the nurseries, and that was disposed of when the children got older (Harold's younger brother William was born in 1906).
His early schooling was at Miss Penrose's private school in Florence. In 1913 his parents sent him to Wixenford Preparatory School near Reading in southern England, where Kenneth Clark was a fellow-pupil. By 1916 submarine attacks on shipping had made the journey to England unsafe and so Harold and his brother were sent in September to Chateau de Lancy, an international school near Geneva. In the autumn of 1917 he went to a 'crammer' at Ashlawn in Kent, in order to be prepared for Eton, which he entered on 1 May 1918. Among his contemporaries at Eton were Eric Blair (the writer George Orwell), Cyril Connolly, Robert Byron, Alec Douglas-Home, Ian Fleming, Brian Howard, Oliver Messel, Anthony Powell, Henry Yorke (the novelist Henry Green). In his final years at school Harold became a founding member of the Eton Arts Society, and eleven of his poems appeared in The Eton Candle, edited by his friend Brian Howard.
In October 1923 Harold went up to Oxford to read Modern Greats at Christ Church. It was from the balcony of his rooms in Meadow Buildings that he declaimed passages from The Waste Land through a megaphone, an episode recalled in Brideshead Revisited which Waugh gives to the character of Anthony Blanche. While at Oxford he co-founded the avant garde magazine The Oxford Broom, and published his first book of poems, Aquarium (1923). Acton was regarded as the leading figure of his day and would often receive more attention in memoirs of the period than men who were much more successful in later life. For example, the Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams described this encounter with Acton in his autobiography George (1961):
Williams also described Acton's review of The Picture of Dorian Gray in the Oxford student newspaper Cherwell: "a charming boy’s book, we would suggest a cheap edition to fit comfortably into the pocket of a school blazer"; and summarized Acton's modernist approach to literature: "But if one finds the words, my dears, there is beau-ty in a black-pudding."
In 1926 he acted as a special constable during the General Strike, apolitical as he was, and took his degree. In October he took an apartment in Paris, at 29 Quai de Bourbon, and had his portrait painted by Pavel Tchelitcheff. Moving between Paris and London in the next few years, Harold sought to find his voice as a writer. In 1927 he began work on a novel, and a third book of poems, Five Saints and an Appendix, came out early the following year. This was followed by a prose fable, Cornelian, in March. In July Harold acted as Best Man at the wedding of Evelyn Waugh to the Honourable Evelyn Gardner. Waugh’s Decline and Fall bore a dedication to Harold ‘in Homage and Affection’, but when Harold’s own novel – disastrously entitled Humdrum – appeared in October 1928, it was slated in comparison with Decline and Fall by critics such as Cyril Connolly.
In the later 1920s Harold frequented the London salon of Lady Cunard, where at various times he encountered Ezra Pound, Joseph Duveen and the Irish novelist George Moore. On visits to Florence he cemented his friendship with Norman Douglas, who wrote an introduction to Harold’s translation of a lubricious 18th-century memoir of Giangastone de’ Medici, The Last of the Medici, privately printed in Florence in 1930 as part of the Lungarno Series. A fourth collection of poems, This Chaos, was published in Paris by Harold’s friend Nancy Cunard, though the Giangastone translation pointed in a more promising direction. History was indeed to prove far more congenial to Harold than poetry. His The Last Medici (not to be confused with the earlier book of similar title) was published by Faber in 1932, the first of a series of distinguished contributions to Italian historical studies.
One close observer, Alan Price-Jones, felt that life in Florence weighed upon Harold with its triviality, for, like his father, he was a hard worker and a careful scholar. The East was an escape. He took up residence Peiping, as Beijing was then known, which he found congenial. He studied Chinese language, traditional drama, and poetry. Between his arrival in 1932 and 1939 he published respected translations of Peach Blossom Fan and Modern Chinese Poetry (1936), both in collaboration with Ch'en Shih-hsiang), and Famous Chinese Plays (1937) in collaboration with L.C. Arlington. His novel Peonies and Ponies (1941) is a sharp portrait of expatriate life. His translation, Glue and Lacquer (1941) selected from the 17th century writer, Feng Menglong's Tales to Rouse the World, with a preface by Arthur Waley, the leading scholar-translator and member of the Bloomsbury Group. The Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, but Acton did not leave until 1939, when he returned to England and joined the Royal Air Force as a liaison officer in the Mediterranean. When the war was over, he returned to Florence. La Pietra had been occupied by German soldiers, but he expeditiously restored it to its proper glory.
Acton's non- historical works include four volumes of poetry, three novels, two novellas, two volumes of short stories, two volumes of autobiography and a memoir of his friend Nancy Mitford, who was his exact contemporary. His historical works include The Last Medici, a study of the later Medici Grand Dukes, and two large volumes on the House of Bourbon, rulers of the Kingdom of Naples in the 18th and earlier 19th century, which together may be said to constitute his magnum opus.