Sparkle Plenty

Geoffrey Madan's Notebooks: A Selection

edited by J.A. Gere, edited by John Sparrow, with a foreword by Harold Macmillan
Oxford University Press, 136 pp., $17.95

Geoffrey Madan
Geoffrey Madan; drawing by David Levine

It is many years now since British society brought off one of its greatest accomplishments: the effortless ability to dazzle. Effortless this may have been, but it did need one or two things not nowadays easy to come by, such as confidence, a little surplus of money (or, better still, a large one), and a congenial fishpond for breeding and exercise.

Once upon a time, Eton and Winchester, Oxford and Cambridge, along with Parliament, the bench of bishops, and the Brigade of Guards, sufficed to carry on the good work. That work was comparable to what occurs in the starry world of the nova. It is the property of a nova to radiate immensely and then slowly to fade. An explosion of intense energy takes place. And what forms is a nebula, defined by the dictionary as “a shell of gaseous material surrounding a central hot star that emits radiation causing this material to glow.” There has been an isolated spark or two but no visible nova in the last fifty years of British creativity.

Just such central hot stars bestowed their light on the Oxford of the mid-1920s, when Maurice Bowra, Cyril Connolly, and Harold Acton, not to speak of Evelyn Waugh and W.H. Auden, first went to work on their contemporaries. An even brighter blaze had been noticed twenty years earlier, before the First World War. Julian Grenfell, the Asquiths, Charles Lister, Patrick Shaw-Stewart are still remembered as patterns of what might have been had death in battle not claimed them. Their gifts have been gracefully recorded in Sir Lawrence Jones’s An Edwardian Youth. A few years younger, college successors continued to shine until 1914. Harold Macmillan and Ronald Knox were among them; so was their slightly junior Etonian friend, Geoffrey Madan.

Madan was eighteen the year before war broke out. The son of the Bodleian librarian, he had shown extraordinary brilliance at school, writing, for example, a description of the school in Herodotean Greek. He achieved the ultimate Eton distinction of election to Pop, he was awarded a classical scholarship to Balliol, and in a short time he had gained the friendship of elders such as the prime minister, Asquith, the Bernard Berensons, and Percy Lubbock. Into the bargain, he was extremely good-looking—the possessor of what A.C. Benson defined as “beauty, grace and charm.” He was funny, he was a brilliant scholar. It was easy to predict an exceptional future for him.

When war broke out, he joined the army at once. He served at Gallipoli, in France, and in Mesopotamia, where he was wounded. He returned to Balliol after the war; but something had gone wrong. He left Oxford without a degree and vanished into lifelong obscurity. He died in 1947. He had worked half-heartedly and briefly in the City of London; he married a wife rich but not too rich—the daughter of Sir Saxton Noble, an…

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