Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric
The English “vogue novel” is by definition an ephemeral affair, as perishable as a spider’s web. In its classic form the setting is a country house where the characters assemble and do little else except talk about themselves, their friends, and their ideas; and it is essential that the characters resemble the acquaintances of those who will buy and read the book—in other words members of the upper class who want to be amused and display the book first on the coffee table and ultimately in the lavatory. There is, however, a variation. The characters, or at least some of them, are still identifiable but caught up in a fantasy. Sometimes terrible, cruel events are described but deadpan, never in such a way as to turn the stomach. The vogue novel must sparkle, and success is guaranteed when there is a row—when someone identifies himself with one of the characters in the book, writes to protest, and is met by the incredulous denial. How could the aggrieved acquaintance believe he could be mistaken for the character in question when he does not have red hair or walk with a limp?
The master of this genre at the beginning of the nineteenth century was Thomas Love Peacock. In Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey he satirized the political and social attitudes of the day, and then, after thirty years’ silence, wrote in 1861 his masterpiece Gryll Grange. A century later Aldous Huxley followed Peacock’s formula when he wrote Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, and Point Counter Point, using Ottoline Morrell’s house at Garsington as the meeting place for characters resembling Augustus John, D.H. Lawrence, Mark Gertler, Carrington, Nancy Cunard, Middleton Murry, and the sub-Bloomsbury world. Most vogue novels disappear from view as the generation they were written for departs. Who reads the Platonic dialogue of the Cambridge don Lowes Dickinson, author of A Modern Symposium (1906), which depicted the leading statesmen and intellectuals of the day discussing politics? Who now reads another vogue novelist of those times, John Oliver Hobbes, the pseudonym of Pearl Craigie?
Pearl Craigie was born in Massachusetts but was brought up by her American parents in London. To deaden the pain of an unhappy marriage she began to write vogue novels, and she caught the epigrammatic style of the Nineties to perfection.
Miss Bellarmine was not a maiden lady of that pathetic type who pour out tea and have once loved…. Her character, like that of many English women, slumbered behind her countenance like a dog in its kennel, to come out growling or amiable as circumstances might demand. She was highly accomplished and spoke five languages with one well-bred accent…. She was a discreet, cold-blooded person who could meet Nature face to face without blushing, and wink at the frailties of Culture. Lady Hyde-Bassett on the other hand would only see evil where she wished to see it; and when she met unpleasant truths she rode off on what she called her instincts and they carried her like Barbary mares.
This came from A Study in Temptations, published in 1893. One of its characters, Lady Warbeck, is clearly an elder sister of Lady Bracknell in Wilde’s immortal play, which was not staged until two years later.
“It’s not the fogs [of London] I fear,” said Miss Caroline. “It’s the folk.” “The folk?” said Lady Warbeck, “the folk? I understand. I know very little about them. They keep in the East End…. Of course there’s no such thing as everybody—that is a newspaper vulgarism. One is either a somebody or a nobody—irrespective of rank or profession. The next best thing to a somebody is a nobody in a good set!”
This was the form of vogue novel that Lord Berners chose when, in the year of the phony war before Hitler invaded Norway and France, he lived in exile in Oxford, having closed his country house. But he was more at home when he used the form of the vogue novel as fantasy. The master of this form was Ronald Firbank; his fellow practitioner, H.H. Munro, “Saki,” perished during the First World War.
The stories and two short autobiographical books about Berners’s childhood and days at Eton have now been reprinted, and last year in Britain Mark Amory, the literary editor of the Spectator, wrote his life. Is a Berners revival on the way?
No one was better fitted to write Berners’s life than Amory. He has edited the letters of Evelyn Waugh and those of Ann Fleming (Ian Fleming’s widow), and is a great expert on the personalities and intricacies of London society between and after the two world wars. It is the world of the Sitwells, the Mitford sisters, the hostesses, Lady Cunard and Lady Colefax, of Cecil Beaton and Oliver Messel, of Diana Cooper and Daisy Fellowes, of William Walton and the ballet, of Harold Acton and John and Penelope Betjeman.
In 1937 Berners privately published The Girls of Radcliff Hall (a play on the name of the lesbian author of The Well of Loneliness, banned by the courts as obscene), in which Berners figured as the headmistress of a girls’ school, and his homosexual friends—easily recognizable—were translated into girls whirling in a maelstrom of crushes and intrigues. Berners was a major entertainer of this world. At his country house, Faringdon, seventy-four guests were invited to stay in 1933 and over a hundred for each of the next two years, though he himself was often away in Rome and Paris.
All that, however, lay in the future. Berners was born Gerald Tyrwhitt; his family belonged to the gentry. His father, an officer in the Royal Navy and frequently away at sea, refused to spank his rebellious son on the grounds that he couldn’t be bothered to do so. He had married his impulsive, naive, unworldly wife for her money, and they resembled, his son wrote, “two cog-wheels that for ever failed to engage.” First Childhood and its sequel, A Distant Prospect, tell the story of a child brought up by a strict, conventional mother, a child who terrorized the household with his tantrums but was subdued by the tortures of the philistine boarding school to which he was sent aged ten. His mother and the odious headmaster tried to make him manly—to ride to hounds and play team games whereas what he wanted to do was to play Chopin; at Eton he discovered classical music and conned his father into giving him money to buy the score of Das Rheingold.
His few friendships ended in farce. At Cheam preparatory school, he hero-worshipped an athlete. One night they climbed onto a roof, and the athlete took him in his arms. Gerald threw up all over him. At Eton a notorious sixteen-year-old befriended him but did not pounce. Gerald realized that his friend felt neither lust nor affection for him. After two bouts of rheumatic fever his mother withdrew him from Eton and his father suggested diplomacy as the most likely career for him. To his delight he was sent to Europe to learn languages. Much of his time he spent listening to music and teaching himself to compose with the result that he failed the Foreign Office exam time and again and ended by being taken on as an unpaid honorary attaché first in Constantinople and then in Rome.
It was in Rome that his life began to take shape. He met Stravinsky, who became his admirer and called Berners the best English composer of his generation. He made a mark in 1916 with three funeral marches—for a statesman, a canary, and a rich aunt. This was not the sort of music to please the doyen of London’s music critics, Ernest Newman. He did not share Stravinsky’s enthusiasm, and took it as a declaration of war. For Newman modern music meant Wagner, and modern English music meant Vaughan Williams’s folk-song melodies and the restrained dissonances of Sir Arthur Bliss and Sir Arnold Bax. Newman despised Berners’s music as a frivolous offshoot of Eric Satie, whom he considered the most frivolous composer of all. Constant Lambert thought Berners’s Fantaisie Espagnole such a dazzling parody of Spanish mannerisms that, after one listens to it, “it is impossible to hear most Spanish music without a certain satiric feeling breaking through.” Through Stravinsky Berners met Diaghilev and began to compose music for his ballet company. In 1925 Berners’s The Triumph of Neptune was the only new ballet score that season. He wrote a short opera which The Times called “an unqualified success” and took a curtain call to applause. It was never staged again.
His music met a more insidious opponent than Newman. After the war his father and a succession of uncles died and Gerald found that he had become first a baronet, and then a baron. He had also inherited a considerable fortune and a fine country house in Wiltshire and became Lord Berners, bald, unprepossessing, known for the excellence of his cook and for such mild singularities as wearing weird masks and dying his doves purple or pink. His guests were fed on caviar and plover’s eggs, and Vera Stravinsky taught his cook how to make a blue mayonnaise. The delights of social life engulfed him.
He was not a nonentity. He was called a “dormouse with a bite”; and it was he who described Lawrence of Arabia as “always backing into the limelight.” So he became not merely acceptable but a prize for the glitterati. He found the life of the rich too exacting for a composer. His vocation became not being a bore or being bored. After The Triumph of Neptune he did not compose for ten years. It is interesting to compare him with another self-taught Etonian composer, eleven years Berners’s junior, Philip Heseltine, who wrote under the pseudonym of Peter Warlock and whose maestro was Delius. Caricatured by both Huxley and D.H. Lawrence, Heseltine was an alcoholic and committed suicide. But his Capriol Suite, his Serenade, and some of his songs are still part of the repertoire today. Berners’s music is not.
Berners, however, found a new enthusiasm, painting. Diaghilev was furious, and stormed into Berners’s rooms screaming, “Je vous défends de faire de la peinture! Je vous le défends!” Diaghilev got his way. Berners produced the music for Neptune. But in 1929 Diaghilev died, and in 1931 Berners showed thirty-eight paintings at the Lefevre Galleries. Evelyn Waugh reported that Berners “sold them all on the first day which shows what a good thing it is to be a baron.” Nevertheless that was not a good year for Berners. The establishment at Faringdon included a butler, a footman, two housemaids, a cook, a kitchen maid, and five or six gardeners. When Britain went off the gold standard, he was convinced he was ruined. In fact his income hardly varied and the fall in the price of commodities may even have made him richer. An astonishing scene followed. He and Beaverbrook met and bewailed their fate. Convinced they were on the point of ruin they repaired to Beaverbrook’s London mansion, fell on their knees, and prayed to God on either side of the bed to protect their money.