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 industrial achiever in the world of armaments, another of whose daughters married Lord Gladwyn, later British ambassador to the United Nations and to France. He fathered one daughter, he lived his life exactly as he chose, propped by good connections, he died in his early fifties, and that was all.

What remains is the memory of him among a necessarily dwindling group of friends, and some scraps of prose, among which these Notebooks stand out. I remember hearing of them many years ago in the somewhat rarefied circles in which he moved. For a time he sent chosen friends a small booklet each Christmas, selected from a whole which he was too fastidious to prepare for publication. After his death his widow made a selection from the full text. And now J.A. Gere and John Sparrow, until lately warden of All Souls College, Oxford, have made still further excerpts, with an excellent introductory essay and a foreword by Harold Macmillan.

The work was worth doing for two reasons: that Madan’s notations are entertaining in themselves, and that they cast light on a very peculiar mind. His editors, having filled six or seven decorous pages with a kindly description of him, suddenly add, “It would be wholly misleading to leave the reader with the impression that Geoffrey Madan was an affable; warm-hearted man.” After his death, John Murray, principal of the University College of the South-West, Exeter, wrote of his “uncanny aloofness, as if he had stepped from the everywhere and the nowhere into here; as if, in his curious way, he was in time but not of it.” He disliked children and hated dogs. A schoolfriend of his daughter’s, who had brought her mother’s Pekingese with her to the Madans’ flat, found him preparing a box in which “to take it to the vet to be put down.” Cyril Asquith summed the matter up by saying that he was “never at pains to court popularity, and indeed sometimes seemed anxious to avert it.”


Yet he kept up close friendships with some of the more remarkable people of the day, from the Winston Churchills to H.G. Wells, from Arnold Bennett to Dean Inge. He loved and possessed wine, rare books, and silver. Sir Shane Leslie said of him that “he collected good talk and carefully bottled a good story.” The notebooks are the end product of his special personality, tart, scholarly, remote. His widow wrote of him that he found it “hard…to accept the terms of ordinary life.” She spoke of “an undercurrent of stress…running beneath a sense of privilege.” In sum, he was a difficult man, moreover not helped by the permanent consequences of a severe illness contracted six years after his marriage.

Luckily his notebooks survive. And also a few sparkling pen-portraits, so far circulated only in typescript. His salty accounts of two Eton headmasters, Lyttelton and Alington, are models of Johnsonian pithiness, and ought certainly to be added to any second edition of the Notebooks. Madan’s collected works would not fill two hundred pages.

The habit of assembling a common-place-book was widespread in Victorian and Edwardian England. Into morocco-bound volumes ladies in country houses copied out what struck them as they read. Some of these compilations, like Lady Grey of Fallodon’s The White Wallet and Nina Cust’s A Tub of Goldfish, were subsequently published. The unacknowledged inspiration may have been the stout volumes of Southey’s Common-Place Book, still one of the best sources in the language of fine confused information.

But Madan was also an aphorist, who relished the aphorisms of others as well as his own. He was an amateur of the odd, the cranky, the verbal slip on a banana skin. Some of his entries simply dissolve into ghostly laughter, like the brief annotation: “Lunch party given by Lady Colefax ‘To meet the Mother of the Unknown Warrior.’ ” Or “A.J. Balfour not forgetting having been Home Secretary but remembering having been, when he never was.” If he has literary ancestors they are, perhaps, Joubert and Logan Pearsall Smith, author of the still-delectable Trivia.

But it is less his own aphorisms that strike home than the serpent hiss of his delighted recognition that people are often foolish and sometimes acidly correct. He takes from Sir Cecil Spring Rice, British ambassador in Washington during the First World War, “American politics: dullness, occasionally relieved by rascality.” He notes an equally chilly comment by his friend Henry Ward, “Americans go deeply into the surface of things.” He did not, it must be admitted, know much about America or Americans. Like many clever Englishman of his generation he limited his international interest to a choice between France, Italy, and Germany. He chose France. But his keenest perceptions are kept for his native land. And here it may be regretted by non-British readers that his editors have been economical with notes. The quotes are seldom identified except by a name unfamiliar to most people born a long way from Oxford or London, and less than fifty years ago.

Still, what good company they are. Lord D’Abernon remarking that “An Englishman’s mind works best when it is almost too late”; Mrs. Asquith discovering that “Lord Birkenhead is very clever, but sometimes his brains go to his head”; himself describing “Mrs. Simpson: half governess, half earwig“; Ronald Knox summing up, “The room smelt of not having been smoked in”; the poet Humbert Wolfe, speaking of Arnold Bennett, “He would look at his chosen prey with a fierce flat eye and the air of a man refusing to finance a tin-mine.”

On one very small matter I can throw light. “Young man at smart house: only a black tie brought: asking advice from an older fellow-guest: ‘My dear fellow, fire your man.’ ”

I was the young man, and Bicton, in Devonshire, the house. Aged about twenty-one, I had been asked for a weekend, and it did not occur to me, even fifty years ago, to take a white tie to a country weekend. On reaching the drawing room before dinner I saw that all the other men wore tailcoats, so I went up to my elderly host to apologize. “Which footman have you got?” he asked. “It is not the footman’s fault,” I said. “I haven’t brought a white tie.” He put his hand on my shoulder, in fatherly fashion, and spoke the immortal words—the less applicable to me because, barely old enough to have a home of my own at all, I could only afford the service of an old lady who swept under the bed once a week. Many years later, the late Lord Egremont told in print the same story, but made the elder speaker his own father, Lord Leconfield. The point of his story had been changed to exemplify Lord Leconfield’s inflexible sense of social decorum. At the time I was cross-examined by Evelyn Waugh, demanding accuracy. Lord Leconfield, splendid in white tie and tails, had in fact been in the room at the time, but only as a silent and, I hope, sympathetic fellow guest. I was not asked again.


Possibly this most entertaining book would have been even more satisfying had Madan maintained a consistent focus rather than jotting down whatever took his fancy. I think of a small book compiled privately by the tenants of an English house that regularly entertained writers such as E.M. Forster and Rose Macaulay, as well as musicians and painters of equal eminence. The hosts quietly recorded unguarded remarks which betrayed the speaker’s character, and dedicated a page or two to each guest, so that a miniature dossier grew up over the years. The classic example is a monosyllable uttered by Raymond Mortimer, the critic, when a new name came into the talk. “Rich?” he asked.

On the other hand, had Madan limited himself to history, or literature, or society, we should have missed some good jokes. He liked anagrams, for one thing, and confected ingenious examples, such as “R.C. saint’s life? O no!” out of “Less Fornication…?!” and “I can? Not I” out of “Inaction.” He also rescued from oblivion some admirable flashes of speech, like Mrs. Asquith’s “The Bible tells us to forgive our enemies; not our friends,” or a story of the master of Trinity College, waking up at a college meeting and remarking, “A strong case, tellingly put.”

It is tempting to go on quoting. Can one resist calling attention to Roger Fry’s comment on a portrait by Sargent, “I cannot see the man for the likeness”? But in fact this is a book to be savored slowly, like a bottle of Madan’s best port.

It demonstrates that all the wit and spirit of London between the wars was not, as it sometimes seems today, concentrated in Bloomsbury. Madan’s less intense and serious world was a distillation of something very different: a compound of manor house, university, cabinet office, clubland seen as a refuge not an excuse for conviviality. It is a world, I suppose, which has totally vanished, but into which it is agreeable briefly to peer, whether to heed its warnings, like Lord Lyons’s “If you’re given champagne at lunch, there’s a catch somewhere,” or to reflect on a remark of the Eton master, William Cory—a remark which stands at the center of Madan’s philosophy, “There’s a little touch of vulgarity in the thought of any reward—for anything, ever.”

This Issue

June 24, 1982