Well, I’m not sure what happened. Perhaps I was over-enthusiastic with the spring-cleaning? All the images attached to posts between February and July this year have disappeared, so please excuse the mess while I go and look for replacements.
This is a neat and lush little ghost story, barely long enough for a novella, printed in 1941 in an austere wartime edition. In 1945 the story was made into a film of the same name, starring James Mason, and Margaret Lockwood as an entirely new character.
The story is the work of an established literary figure, possibly just a little bit past his prime and resting on former glories: the back cover of the dust-wrapper advertises five of Sitwell’s other works, plus a joint venture with his equally celebrated siblings Edith and Sacheverell called Trio: Dissertations of Some Aspects of National Genius. When A Place of One’s Own was published, Osbert Sitwell had not yet begun his monumental series of autobiographical volumes for which he is best known today: these would begin to emerge in a few years, after the death of his father and his accession to the title. Up to this date he had been notable as a patron of extremely modern art and literature, and as an author in his own right.
A Place of One’s Own betrays many prejudices, particularly that of people formerly in ‘trade’ setting up as gentry. This otherwise inoffensive couple buy a lavish home for their retirement and hope to make the right kind of friends. Mr and Mrs Smedhurst are a pleasant and earnest Victorian couple, with the right kind of attitude towards making life pleasant for everyone in their new life in Newborough (the invented seaside town in Sitwell’s 1926 novel Before the Bombardment). Unhappily, they have chosen to buy a house in which a maiden lady was secluded for most of her life, who was afflicted with long periods of madness, and in which she died. Her warders died two years later in an apparent double suicide. Nobody who has lived in the house subsequently has had a happy time of it. And then the Smedhursts arrive, full of plans for redecorating and for making friends.
I think that Sitwell must have been inspired to write this story by thinking through the dramatic possibilities of speaking tubes for communicating with the servants. The Smedhursts’ house is well appointed with these, and they become a focus for torment, communication beyond the grave, and panic-stricken messages when something is going badly wrong in the best bedroom. The story’s focus on madness and delusions also lets slip some nasty ways of describing people with mental illness, and those who aren’t quite like other people. The whole novella could be thought of as a study of the Victorian treatment of the mentally afflicted, making this the perpetrator of the crimes.
Osbert Sitwell, A Place of One’s Own (Macmillan 1941)
The only things I knew about Angelica Garnett before I read this autobiography were (1) that she was the daughter of Vanessa Bell and her lover Duncan Grant, and (2) that her eventual husband David Garnett had announced that he would marry Angelica on first meeting her, in her cradle. Deceived With Kindness suggests that these fragments of anecdote were not atypical: this memoir could be alternately subtitled How Not To Bring Up A Daughter.
Having read this miserable account of a Bloomsbury childhood I now understand that (3) Angelica believed Clive Bell to be her father for a very long time, and that they had a loving relationship, that (4) her future husband had had an affair with her real father Grant, and that (5) David Garnett had apparently made it a long-term project, after being rebuffed by Vanessa before Angelica was born, to seduce Vanessa’s daughter, once she had one. In addition it would seem that Vanessa Bell apparently did not believe in education, of any kind, and certainly not for girls. She also didn’t give Angelica any of the helpful guidance due from protective, caring parents that would have helped her daughter repel Garnett’s advances. Muddled? I was revolted, and furious.
David Garnett married someone else while waiting for Angelica to grow up enough to be beddable. I can’t remember what happened to that wife: perhaps she was discarded to enable him to cement his Bloomsbury credentials. The only adult to come out with any credit from Angelica’s account of her childhood and adolescence is Leonard Woolf, who was concerned about her lack of reading, and tried to suggest principles of behaviour that might help Angelica survive in the world outside the Bloomsbury bubble of self-absorption.
Therapy also helped her: vast amounts of it. Reading this memoir — which is undeniably from one particular perspective — confirms what I have instinctively felt for years, that the Stephen sisters were awful people, and that ‘Bloomsbury’ was a snakepit of social experimentation on the innocent and hapless.
I must be one of the last people among the middlebrow fanciers to have read Beverley Nichols. He is perfect bedtime reading: light, frivolous, witty, of an earlier period so there won’t be anything nasty in the woodshed, and unexpectedly moving. I first noticed his existence in a delightfully poisonous parody in Leonard Russell’s immortal Parody Party (1936), and thought ‘gardens’, ‘camp’, prissy’. Fool that I was: he is so much better than all that shoved together.
I found three of his memoir-novels in the Oxfam bookshop off New Oxford Street in London, one with a shabby but intact dust-wrapper with gloriously 1950s spindly pen-and-ink illustrations. After reading them, I was consumed with curiosity about his real life, rather than just his memorialised life, and I found some of his journalism in collected volumes in the library. I gobbled them up too, but with diminishing speed. As an ingénue celebrity journalist in the 1920s Nichols was waspish before his years, and he rather traded on the success of Twenty-Five (1926), a very good collection of brief but perceptive celebrity puff pieces, with Are They The Same At Home (1927) which is twice the length and half the fun.
I will begin with Merry Hall (1951). It is immediately after the war, and Nichols is looking for a new home because his former home in London has been bombed flat. He suppresses the pathos of losing all his belongings because many of his original readers would have suffered the same: it doesn’t do to complain when others are worse off. He seems to have money, at least, and drives about the Home Counties with and without his valet / cook / housekeeper / manservant Gaskin, looking for the perfect home. But it’s not just the home, it’s the garden. They search and search and nothing is perfect, until an advert in The Times leads them to the perfect ENORMOUS garden with a fairly large dilapidated manor house attached. Sold, with Oldfield, the attached cantankerous, miracle-working gardener, all found.
The Merry Hall trilogy (it was followed by Laughter on the Stairs, 1953, and Sunlight on the Lawn, 1956) is about the garden. Nichols is at his best when arguing and negotiating with Oldfield and Gaskin about what to put in his garden, how to nurture it, and what to scour the countryside for to suit the garden’s haughty and aristocratic tastes. The heavy horticulture is inspirational, though I have no intention of following any of his advice because it’s all rather lavish. It could also all be completely invented: one simply has no idea.
When Nichols is not rhapsodising about his lilies and the massive garden ornamentation he brings in to properly set off a simple patch of something pinkish and Latinate, he is fighting viciously with the neighbours. No memoir works without people to animate the setting, or to amuse the reader with their quaint ways. I have no idea whether the awful maiden ladies among whom Nichols spends the 1940s and 1950s actually existed, but in these memoirs they are rather too obviously modelled on Mapp and Lucia. Their battles are epic, and Nichols’ solutions in the interests of community harmony and natural justice are unscrupulous. The loathing he feels for these ladies among whom he is trapped is unexpected. His allies are even fiercer, and by the third book there is detectable misogyny: he must have been feeling the strain of a limited circle.
He is such a kind and gentle soul, I was taken aback by the reserves of vitriol he was able to summon. Or perhaps this was invented too: in such an artificial construct as these memoirs, which are as much about reinforcing the Nichols persona as about amusing his readers, nothing can be assumed to be real. I rather liked the way he simply doesn’t care about being charming and funny all the time: it’s refreshing to read about grumpy camp behaviour, well sharpened.
The anecdotes about restoring the house have less urgency than those about the garden and its plants. Nicholls will spend a chapter describing how a certain aspect or prospect was achieved by the placing of tons of stone and planting hundreds of bulbs, all to create a vista that will only be perfection in a certain aspect of a season. Whole rooms are restored and furnished in half the time, with half the attention. There is much rushing about with watering cans, and stern advice given about setting the watering water to warm throughout the day. There is arduous piano practice, and great attention paid to the placing of perfect pieces to best advantage, and hide the ragged but expensive carpet. It all costs a vast amount of cash, so Nicholls is furiously dashing off books about his garden and house to pay for the next delivery of bulbs and trees, and then he overspends on Chippendale or glass and has to write another book to pay for it all. No wonder he had to move. The Merry Hall trilogy is the second of three sets of three books about his homes and gardens, but I’m not sure that I have the devotion to begin again.
(PS There are also cats. Nicholls has a lot of cats, and the books are rather full of them. If you’re interested in that kind of thing.)
We’re well past the Labour victory in the post-war general election now, heading towards a Conservative revival in 1951. Notable Conservative novelist Angela Thirkell wrote about this period of British history with loathing and resentment. John Lehmann writes about it in his Foreword to this issue in terms of a strong desire to earn a great deal of ready cash in the USA, ‘where money comes easily and in vast amounts, where the meanest poet or novelist can satisfy his utmost material cravings, where peace and contentment will lap him round during his mortal life’. No women invited, then. Plus ça change. Lehmann had been visiting the USA and had returned still thrilling to memories of shops full of unrationed food and clothing, and the vast salaries paid to writers.
His selection of fiction, poetry, essays and art this issue feels more lavish, more emotionally expansive than earlier issues have been.
Anthony Thorne’s ‘Dark red chrysanthemum’ is comic and cruel, relating the unexpected visit of a couple to a widow who has long since lost any interest in keeping up her late husband’s acquaintances. Mr and Mrs Bore, as she calls them (because she is too engrossed in her conversation with the gardener to bother to notice their names) don’t know much about her life, and she is determined not to tell them anything because of the misery that lies beneath. But we learn a great deal, through evasion, silent raging, and the power of upper-class social codes that may not be broken.
J F Powers’ ‘The Forks’ is another story of American priestly life (he had one in issue 33), with extra bile. Monsignor is the bully of the priestly house, and Father Eudex, a humble curate, has views that do not correspond with Monsignor’s ideas about correct priestly behaviour, and his table manners are not what Monsignor expects to see. And then there are the cars: Monsignor has an expensive one that he venerates more than the viaticum, and does not approve of Father Eudex’s choice of a Ford.
Julia Strachey’s ‘An attack of indigestion’ is a country-house visit story that is the antidote to everything you have ever read about country-house visits. Perfectly true to life, and full of human unhappiness.
Walter Allen discourses on V S Pritchett, who is ‘at the centre of one of the enduring traditions of English life and literature … with George Orwell and Joyce Cary is its foremost living representative’. This androcentric attitude shaped the formal study and canonisation of English literature for generations in the UK, and it makes my blood boil. SO MANY authors ignored by the self-appointed tastemakers. But for all that, Pritchett does seem worth revisiting, as the successor to Arnold Bennett. Graham Greene would be creeping up on him.
I love these wild oil paintings by Renato Guttuso.
And these Paul Klees are so delicate and intricate, I can forgive the lack of colour.
Angus McBean photographed Anthony Quayle’s production of Paul Scofield and Madge Elliott in Vanbrugh’s The Relapse at the Old Vic. And Michael Redgrave played Macbeth in a really bad wig.
As is now becoming habitual, I prefer the essays and stories in ‘The Living Moment’ section at the end. They’re often the best pieces in the magazine. Here, Christopher Isherwood’s account of ‘Sailing up the Magdalena River’ is perfect snarky travel writing, in unsavoury conditions. John Atkins’ story ‘The Deserter’ is a compelling bit of fiction-verité, demobbery, desertery, and yet more horrible male attitudes to women. But great writing.
The Croquet Player (1936) by H G Wells is set in an alternative universe where croquet and archery have the same exalted sporting status as tennis. It’s a novella of serious frivolity, and seems to be most highly regarded now for its apparent foreshadowing of the Second World War. Given its publication date, after six or more years of literary anticipation of conflict with Nazi Germany, it would be astonishing if anything Wells wrote at this period did not anticipate war. His First World War novel, Mr Britling Sees It Through (1916), and his own first-hand knowledge from that period, supply the detail of what happens when civilians are bombed.
Much more interesting is how he channels H P Lovecraft with Gothic horror. Georgie Frobisher is an international croquet and archery champion, and resides with his maiden aunt, Miss Frobisher. Out of season she and he concern themselves with the Woman’s World Humanity Movement, but as soon as mallets and longbows may be brandished, she drops political agitation and they go on tour. They are at the English seaside resort of Les Noupets, for its fine club croquet lawns, which is near Cainsmarsh, a village name with the highest Lovecraftian implications. The local doctor buttonholes Georgie with a dark and unnerving tale of hauntings, terror, tortured children and open graves.
The delight of this story is the impressive inverse bathos that Wells produces by making the frivolous Georgie, who only lives for his game and is under the severe thumb of his aunt, the serious, unaffected hero character. Wells piles on the Gothic, with a Neanderthal skeleton, a dog beaten to death, murderous threats, endemic panic and a thoroughly objectionable psychiatrist. The reader is thrilled and repelled: Georgie simply listens calmly and then leaves to play a game of croquet for which he has been engaged.
Lifting the surface layers of this intriguing and entertaining story, some interesting elements emerge, not least the wartime predictions, and Wells’ views on the misappropriation of science by the barely educated. I was so happy to stumble upon it.
H G Wells, The Croquet Player (1936), (Nottingham: Trent Editions, 1998, 2003), ISBN 0-905488-89-X.
Some time ago in Penguin New Writing John Lehmann asked for funny stories to print. He also suggested that both women and men would be leaping to their desks at the end of war to write the fiction they’d been bottling up during the war years. None of this is showing in what he’s publishing in Penguin New Writing. There is no humour at all, and several male authors are becoming regular, repeat contributors, while the women authors published so far can be counted on the fingers of one hand. In his Foreword for this first issue of 1948 Lehmann rails against National Service, and the impossible hoops that authors have to jump through to gain exemption. Given that only male authors feature in this issue, and only men were conscripted in peacetime, it’s pretty obvious that Lehmann doesn’t consider post-war women as authors, or have much interest in publishing what they might write. With editors like him, who needs enemies?
However, with authors like P H Newby, the woman’s perspective is not wholly ignored. ‘Crowning Glory’ is about the cutting off of a teenage girl’s long hair, at her mother’s instructions, against her father’s wishes. The barber’s hands are delicately intrusive, and the gypsy’s warning comes true. Newby is one of the few authors that Lehmann publishes who writes about women as fully and perceptively as he does about men.
A short story by the well-known literary critic Lionel Trilling — ‘Of This Time, Of This Place’— was unexpected but jolly good, positing the question of what an American professor can do when presented with madness in the classroom. How to grade incomprehensible brilliance, and how to suppress uncomprehending entitlement?
I was cautious about the critical essays, the last few issues having produced very little that was readable, but this issue has A D B Sylvester’s ‘A Chapter of Revelations’, a splendid report on the fuss and outrage caused by the National Gallery’s move to clean some of its paintings. Their account of conservation techniques, the physics of colour, pigment weirdness and the revealing huffery of eminent critics of the day is seriously entertaining.
Pause here to admire the emotion shared by Alec Guinness’s Richard II and Harry Andrews as
Gaveston a young bloke with adoring eyes * in the Old Vic’s 1947 production.
The magazine’s enforced black and white reproductions of paintings don’t do much for the smudgier, blotchier styles, but John Minton’s Corsican landscapes come across beautifully. Crisp and solid.
In lengthy succession we have Andre Gide’s essay on Paul Valéry and Lehmann himself on James Joyce. Both are undoubtedly important but I could not summon the interest to read them. Penguin New Writing seems to have a tediously instructive element which is beginning to annoy me. However, William Sansom’s essay on Edgar Allen Poe explains much about his alarmingly gothic fiction that we’ve read in earlier issues: this was worth ploughing through.
This issue ends with reportage, so much more enjoyable and interesting to read than pompous criticism. Alan Ross’s ‘From a Corsican Notebook’ offers pretty much what it says on the tin: bar scenes, girls glimpsed sunbathing, traditional male fierceness, and buses with steering wheels on both sides. Keith B Poole’s ‘The Gift’ is an expertly crafted snippet of memoir from the war, shaped to fit a story’s outline and its tensions, but presented as fact. Which makes the box of severed human ears, presented to a squaddie as a gift at the end, all the more unnerving.
*as corrected by eagle-eyed reader who knows his Marlowe better than I know my Shakespeare.