Cyril Connolly is the hairy-eyebrowed big man who dominated the 1930s and 1940s in English literary criticism. Like George Orwell, he had attended Eton College and had a large and varied acquaintance with the aristocracy, Establishment figures and literati of his day. (Their politics and social lives were quite different.) Like Orwell, Connolly is one of the most quoted reviewers of that period, so much so that what he wrote is frequently used as historical affirmation. As the founder and editor of the phenomenally influential literary magazine Horizon, he has become a historical authority, rather than one critic among many in an Age of Critics. He is not unreliable, but his opinions are far too often trotted out as The Truth, when they are really only one selected aspect of historical opinion. However, this is not to say that he shouldn’t be read, because he’s a tremendous writer, a skilled recorder, and a devastating wit.
His 1945 collection of essays The Condemned Playground is fronted with a Latin epigraph meaning, roughly, ‘stop the currents, young men, (or, close up the sluices, boys), the meadows have drunk enough’. The 1930s are over, as is the war, and so all good things come to an end. The essays are not elegiac, but they are a record of the times Connolly lived in, and were published from 1927 to 1944.
The first section, of book reviews, is probably of no interest unless you are looking for the Connolly view on James Joyce, Andre Gide, Laurence Sterne, Thomas Mann, Jonathan Swift, Lord Chesterfield and A E Housman. (Notice the set school texts mingling with the avant garde.) The second section is wittier, containing skits that satirise society and learning, and introduce Connolly’s friends. The essays in the third section are more autobiographical, and record his visits to Spain during the Civil War, and his resentment and affection for England (not Britain). He blends reviewing with trenchant commentary on the state of upper-class Englishmen in ‘The fate of an Elizabethan’, which is ostensibly a review of the memoir of Lord Knebworth by his father, Earl Lytton. In recalling the life of this gilded MP who died pointlessly in an air crash at 31, Connolly excoriates the public school system that funnels energy and promise into memorising useless but sanctioned knowledge. “Power makes men stupid,” it has been said, and the power of the governing classes is cumulative and hereditary.” “Had Lord Knebworth belonged to another class, had he been like Lawrence a miner’s son, he would have risen by his intellect rather than been kept down by his athletic accomplishments.”
Connolly writes a great deal about current writing, as we can see from some of the titles: ‘Ninety years of novel-reviewing’, ‘More about the modern novel’ and ‘Defects of English novels’. In ‘The novel-addict’s cupboard’ he describes his own book collection, a sure sign that he considered that his opinion even then (1936) represented what all properly read people ought to follow. ‘Henry James, semi-complete … Maurice Baring, semi-complete … Aldous Huxley, complete … Hemingway, complete. Waugh, complete. Powell, complete.’ (He does add a special paragraph for women writers of whom he approves, but who do not feature in his list of the most important novelists, and he says kind things about Mrs Woolf, Miss Bowen and Rosamond Lehmann. Notice the correct styling for the older ladies: he and Miss Lehmann were friends.) He abhors ‘cheap editions, travellers’ libraries, anti-travellers’ libraries: ghastly!’. He would be quite bewildered at the current fashion for collecting this ghastly rubbish and writing academic studies of their bindings, but the explanation for this has a lot to do with not agreeing with Connolly’s estimation of what was important.
He sends up his peer-critics J B Priestley, James Agate and A G Macdonell in ‘Mr Mossbross takes the class’, one of the earliest uses of the fourth form lesson as skit, later immortalised by Joyce Grenfell and Rowan Atkinson. He massacres the popular conception of the 1936 middlebrow novel in ‘Felicity’. The girlish, Metroland narrator is getting ready for a family dinner in the suburban home, fish knives and napkin rings and all, but the reader is confounded when the sketch turns into a mass murder thriller. On a different occasion, in ‘Felicity entertains’, he sends up the ridiculous practice of ‘observing’ for Mass Observation, and savages the professional critic as a fraud and a greedy egoist.
The real glory of this collection is ‘Where Engels feared to tread’, almost a short story rather than an essay, and a roman à clef about the literary and social butterflies of the 1930s. It is the apparent autobiography of Christian de Clavering, an exaggerated child who flits expensively and insouciantly through Eton, Oxford and society, and finds salvation as a Communist called Chris Clay. Here he is at school:
Happy river of Eton-Windsor! I have always been very vague about its name, but I have often pictured it winding away past Reading Gaol and into the great world somewhere – the world of the Ballet and the Sitwells, of Cocteau and the Café Royal.
“Hello Faun, what a way to spend your après-midi.” It was Harold, my most uneasy disciple.
Here he is at Oxford:
I took care at these parties to have a word and a piece of advice for everyone.
There was an alert young man in a corner, looking rather shy. “I know – don’t tell me,” I said to him, “it’s your first party.” “Yes.” I pinched his cheek. “Si jeunesse savait!” I laughed. It was Evelyn Waugh.
Another merry little fellow asked me if I could suggest a hobby. “Architecture,” I gave in a flash. “Thank you.” It was John Betjeman.
“And for me?”
It was Robert Byron.
“Byron,” I laughed back – it was Peter Quennell.
The point of all this glossy name-dropping in this delightful but lengthy squib is that Connolly is sending up his Bright Young Contemporaries with the right amount of affectionate derision at their self-made identities, and at the performativity they made a way of life. Connolly moves Christian through the social whirl much as ‘Saki’ moves Clovis through Edwardian society: dominating, superficial, utterly on top of all that was most fashionable, and always in demand. He exists to epitomise the decade between 1925 and 1935, and so Connolly cherry-picks his way through its most memorable features and personalities, sending up the preoccupations of that sector of society with affection as well as a distant contempt.
“M. Picasso – Mr Hemingway. M. Hemingway – Senor Belmonte. Mr Nicolson – Mr Firbank – and now shall we begin without Miss Stein? I’m starving.”
“I can’t decide whether to stay with Lorenzo in Taos or Crowley in Cefalu – where does one go in August?”
“Dear Evelyn, of course, put me into it!”
“I’ve found the title for you, Bréton – Surréalisme.”
The brilliance is rather exhausting, so it was well-judged of Connolly to include his reflections on being shot at in Spain. Otherwise one would think that his life had been utterly insouciant, if very well expressed.