Last year the centenary of Keynes’s birth was celebrated in Cambridge, England, in almost too seemly a manner. A meeting at the Guildhall (where long ago Keynes’s mother had presided as mayor) turned out to be a decorous exercise in body-snatching. John Kenneth Galbraith denounced monetarists and suggested that the saint’s relics and truest disciples were really to be found in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a Liberal member of Parliament pounced on Keynes’s loyalty to that party and duly appropriated him; and in the most engaging speech Roy Jenkins trounced the Conservative and Labour parties by quoting Keynes on their dispiriting defects and claimed him for the Alliance of Liberals and Social Democrats which Jenkins himself had created. Meanwhile King’s College conducted an awe-inspiring international seminar of over a hundred economists that concluded with a dinner for them and some descendants of extended Bloomsbury at which two short speeches by octogenarians were followed by one of fifty-three minutes by a Nobel Prizeman, after which the diners tottered into the dusk punch-drunk with oratory. Keynes would have tolerated the oratory: he had listened to so many speeches in his lifetime. But the feature he would most have enjoyed was the musical divertissement about him and his Bloomsbury friends in the spirit of Walton’s Façade, composed, played, and sung by undergraduates.
Far more important was the appearance of the first volume of Robert Skidelsky’s new biography. It is authoritative, documented, and readable—indispensable for anyone who wants to understand the young Keynes and the moral and philosophical problems that exercised his mind and were to shape his conception of the world and the part economics should have in it. It is also a major revision of Roy Harrod’s commemorative biography. Like a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, Harrod digested in only four years archives of material though he faced fearful obstacles. Not only was Keynes’s wife alive. So were both his parents and his brother, itching to burn compromising letters; and also breathing down his neck were old Bloomsbury and the left-wing Cambridge Keynesians who wanted Harrod, who was then a Liberal in politics, to turn Keynes into a collectivist.
But what undid Harrod was his university not his politics. He was a fine flower of Oxford culture in the Twenties, a romantic who could not bring himself to believe Cambridge pursued truth so ruthlessly and despised worldly success. Harrod’s Keynes speculated about truth and beauty, as an ardent young man should, and enjoyed Bloomsbury’s iconoclasm. But once he had served in the Treasury and learned the ways of the world Harrod’s Keynes put aside, as an aspiring young man should, childish things such as pacifism and the cult of personal relations. What could be more natural than to distance himself gently but firmly from his old Bloomsbury friends? What could be more romantic than for Prince Desiré, having broken the spider’s web of Carabosse Clemenceau in the forest of Versailles, to marry Aurora Lopokova? What could be more dramatic than for the savior of capitalism to die just as the world was accepting his ideas and Fame was placing laurels on his brow?
Robert Skidelsky has destroyed that oleograph forever. He shows beyond doubt how loyal Keynes remained all his life to the beliefs he formed and friends he made at King’s and in the Apostles. He has made a major revision in our understanding of the foundations of Keynes’s thought even if he is not entirely sound on either of these societies. He is wrong to suppose, for instance, that Provost Okes opposed the reforms that threw King’s open to non-Etonians: in fact, he headed the reforming party. The private (and satirical) language of the Apostles which calls subjects and activities worth discussing “real,” and those not “phenomenal,” is not Kantian; it is Hegelian and became current in the 1840s. Nor is it the aim of the Apostles to elect to their number the most brilliant intellects among their contemporaries. It was not at all odd, as Skidelsky suggests, that, for instance, the future statistician and biologist Karl Pearson and the welfare economist A.C. Pigou were not elected: the former was intolerant in discussion and the latter had no use for it—he disliked, as he put it, jaw.
Nevertheless, the picture Skidelsky paints of Keynes’s days at Cambridge is full of life and important, because it emphasizes how intensely the beliefs he formed in those days affected his view of the world. Perhaps it is difficult for us to understand how much precise, intricate beliefs founded on propositions mattered to Keynes. “It is not so much,” writes Skidelsky, “that we have lost our beliefs as that we have lost the belief in the possibility of having true beliefs. And this must mean that our beliefs make less claim on us.” Isaiah Berlin recollects how he first met Keynes dining in King’s College and told him that he was reading a paper afterward on Pleasure. “Pleasure?” said Keynes. “What a ridiculous subject.” For him distinctions about pleasure and happiness had been settled long ago.
Everyone knows that these beliefs derived from G.E. Moore’s ethics, which, together with Moore’s pure, passionate, innocent personality, made such an overwhelming impression on Keynes and his friends at the turn of the century. What Keynes deduced from Moore—and it is irrelevant here to argue whether or not he was right to do so—was that the public virtues of loyalty to the state, devotion to family, and respect for obligation that every citizen was expected to assume paled into insignificance before loyalty to friends and the pursuit of truth, even if that meant ignoring authority and institutions. What is significant, Skidelsky argues, is the intensity with which Keynes studied in his youth the intricacies of defining the good, the length and diversity of the notes, jottings, and annotations on this question among his papers.
Characteristically, Keynes was an advanced egoist and pluralist in ethics. Attempts to prove that the pursuit of one’s own happiness or the attainment of a good state of mind could be reconciled with the happiness of the greatest number he regarded as bogus and deceitful. “My goodness demands that my states of mind should be as good as possible, and yours depend upon your states of mind,” he wrote in 1906; “and there is nothing whatever to prevent these two competing.” But Keynes did not entirely neglect the world of politics and action. What, if anything, can one do to make this world good? That depends, the young Keynes thought, on knowledge of the likely consequences of our actions. Will they fulfill our aims and intentions? That in turn must lead us to consider how far we can calculate the probable results of our actions. From 1906 to 1914 Keynes’s main intellectual concern was not economics, but probability theory.
Keynes wanted human beings to pursue good ends by following their egos and their intuitive judgments. No one could judge the probable consequences of his actions—and this conclusion was fundamental to the attack that Keynes and his friends launched not so much on utilitarianism as on Christianity. It is also fundamental to his concern with the short run in economics and the impossibility of calculating what will happen in the long run. Political and social ends were not good in themselves nor were they even meant to be good; and almost inevitably if pursued they would diminish one’s own good. This is the reason why throughout his life Keynes poured scorn on enthusiasm in politics, on slogans, causes, panaceas, political and social theories.
For him politics was a dodge. There was no one perfect, self-evident solution to any practical problem in economics. There were various remedies. His hero in political thought was not Bentham, still less Condorcet. It was, so Skidelsky shows from studying his undergraduate essays, Burke. Burke told us never to adopt measures which would bring hardship and evil tomorrow on the grounds that next year we would be all that much happier. He admired Burke because Burke saw politics as a matter of expediency. Politics had nothing to do with the realization of goods. It was concerned with promoting happiness.
Skidelsky’s chapter on Keynes’s beliefs is masterly, superior to any other account that has been made of the effect of Moore’s thought upon that particular generation. He is right to argue that Keynes never outgrew Moore, as Harrod declared he did, and also that his economics was divorced from his ethics. Economics simply fills a box marked “happiness of others” which did not contain, indeed was separate from, the search for the good. On the other hand Skidelsky acknowledges that there were impersonal social forces which enabled Keynes and his Apostolic friends to neglect Moore’s fifth chapter on “Ethics in Relation to Conduct.” Harrod was right to suggest that the partial economic recovery from the hardships and fierce politics of the 1880s had made Fabianism and the new Liberalism less interesting: just as in the 1950s the young turned away from politics and the dilemmas of personal relations and became engrossed by the concept of culture. Skidelsky also accepts that there was another reason why for all his loyalty to Moore, Keynes could not entirely neglect the notions of duty and obligation. He was very much the child of his parents.
His parents were both children of Dissenters rising in the world of diligence. His father, recognizing that he would never become more than a workaday don, quit the role of bottle-washer to the great economist Alfred Marshall and rose to become the top administrator in Cambridge University. Both were intensely ambitious for their sons’ success. Neville Keynes’s weekly admonitions to Maynard to work harder, his daily presence whenever he took any examination, and his determination to make Maynard take his degree in mathematics even though he himself had abandoned it when he was an undergraduate would have been unendurable to any but such a dutiful and loving son. His father and mother were always at his elbow with worldly advice, urging him not to leave the India Office and return to academic life now he had got a safe billet there, or later not to abandon the Treasury because he disapproved of the conduct of the war, or again not to retain the offensive passages in his polemic against the Versailles Treaty. Keynes resembles Reynolds’s portrait of Garrick between the Muses of Tragedy and Comedy, his Bloomsbury friends signaling imperiously to him to follow Higher Things, his parents with nods and becks and wreathed smiles inveigling him not to forget the rewards of this world. Keynes kept faith with Moore and Bloomsbury; but time and again he deferred to his parents. He knew just what he owed them and his devotion was touching.
Victorian Dissenters are often praised as being the conscience of the nation; but Dissenters on the way up and out of the Nonconformist communions had other aims in view. John Sheppard, who became provost of King’s when Keynes was bursar, detected a defect in his friend: “Non-conformist snobbery. I know all about it—they’re like bugs in a rug. Bugs in a rug.” He did indeed know all about it: he was the son of a Baptist. (Oscar Browning in 1902 had to obtain permission from Sheppard’s father to take his son to the theater.) Keynes was two generations away from it, Virginia Woolf three generations from the rough, tough West Indian merchant who became a fervent Evangelical.
Skidelsky has not grasped all these social nuances. For instance, he refers to Virginia Woolf breaking away from the “encumbrance of her father’s smart relations.” They were not at all smart: they were intellectuals established in literary life or uninteresting upper-middle-class notables. It is in fact these nuances that explain why Lytton and James Strachey (unquestionably from a family of gentry, however poor) could pillory Keynes for being too dazzled by London society, too coarse in his table manners, too insensitive to the finer shades of feeling and apprehension—for all his Etonian education. Keynes unquestionably gave his heart and a great part of his mind to Bloomsbury; but there was more of a tension between him and them than between any other of its members.
The antagonism, however, that boiled beneath the surface of Strachey’s friendship with Keynes was over sex, not manners; and both the biographies under review try to explain Keynes’s character, and his interests, in the light of his homosexuality. Homosexuality in the ruling classes was institutionalized in England to a degree unknown in any other country. From the age of eight to eighteen for nearly three-quarters of the year, public-school boys were immured without meeting girls of their own age, and the colleges at Oxford or Cambridge were monastic establishments. During the 1850s and earlier, most of the well-known schools witnessed scenes which Victorians writing their memoirs alluded to by such dissembling phrases as “boundless depravity.”
The exception was John Addington Symonds (whose memoirs for years were embargoed and have now been published and edited by Phyllis Grosskurth),1 who described in detail the practice at Harrow of giving all good-looking small boys female nicknames—one noted for his “opulent posterior parts” was known as Bum Bathsheba. They were then allotted to their elders, unless they were deemed to be “not game,” to take part in scenes of rape, sadism, and mutual masturbation—there was, Symonds said, “no refinement, no sentiment, no passion; nothing but animal lust.” Yet also at all schools there were periods when in certain houses boys would never encounter during their time there anything untoward—except, perhaps, a romantic friendship, passionate but pure.
In the second half of that century the new generation of Arnoldian headmasters tried to clean things up, sometimes meeting opposition from an unlikely quarter. When E.W. Benson told the aristocrats who were the governors of Wellington school that he was expelling three boys for getting into bed with a fourteen-year-old maid they refused to sanction it on the grounds that such escapades were a natural occurrence in growing up; and only by outmaneuvering them did the future archbishop get his way.
But the more minatory the tone of the sermons on vice, the more circuitous the ways of alluding to it became, until the obscurity reached a point at which the sermons became unintelligible. Homosexual practices and attachments continued underground. Much of it was only talk, gossip, and titivation. In Keynes’s time in College at Eton the high-spirited intellectuals read papers on Ben Jonson and on walks “the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body alternated with the problem of whether a kiss should be followed with a cop” (i.e., copulation). It is unlikely at that time that Keynes did cop.
Homosexuality was not only institutionalized. It was mythologized in the two discourses that occupied practically the entire curriculum—Christianity and the classics. From its inception the Tractarian movement had been famed for the intensity of its attachments and rejections and of the chaste love of Newman for Hurrell Froude and of St.-John for Newman as well as the more flamboyant conduct of Father Faber. Ritualists, the “spikes,” became notorious for their pedophilic coy jokes about stealing a kiss from a chorister; they were at once mawkish, whimsical, naive, and unbearably high-minded. The bowdlerized texts of the classics used in the schools could have inflamed no one’s imagination; but by the time boys got to the university or returned as schoolmasters, some would have read the Phaedrus and the Symposium or Theocritus and the Greek Anthology, so that ancient culture was idealized. The classic example was The Greek View of Life, whose author was the King’s don Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson.
A generation of dons and schoolmasters interpreted romantic friendships as reincarnations of the love of Harmodius for Aristogiton or of the band of Theban lovers. The large majority of these men formed relationships which were as Platonic as Tennyson’s love for Hallam—a love which that uninhibited celebrant of the pleasures of marriage, Charles Kingsley, praised as a successor to “the old tales of David and Jonathan, Socrates and Alcibiades, Shakespeare and his nameless friend, of love passing the love of women.”
Strachey and Keynes too had their homosexual ideal. They broke with Lowes Dickinson. Certainly the passion had to be romantic and the beloved not only good-looking but embodying virtù. But the objective was bed, the passion sensual, and the chase devoid of hypocrisy. This was another attempt to realize one of Moore’s good states of mind, and such questions as whether beauty and intelligence could unite in one person were endlessly discussed. More often than not the exquisite hare eluded the bewildered and timorous hounds. But what they called the Higher Sodomy was pursued with great intensity as well as amusement. They disapproved strongly of aesthetes. “Even in his sodomy,” wrote Keynes of an Oxford acquaintance, “he seems to want to worship an idealized version in which he has clothed some good-looking absurdity rather than to come to close quarters…. The aesthetic view seems to trifle deliberately with sacred reality.”
To the Higher Sodomites, the Edwardian lady was a nightmare. They found unendurable the stereotype of the noble, passive, suffering, loving, redeeming, childbearing creature, the homebound mother surrounded by such lofty impregnable barriers. George Meredith had imagined a new kind of woman in his novels, the girl of spirit, wit, sensitivity, and imagination; but they could not find her. They rejected that suffocating Victorian family life of which Ivy Compton-Burnett became the most dedicated demolition expert. They rejected the complacent, self-satisfied, uneducated girl, corsetted by the conventions of her class, who was determined, come what may, to exercise her will.
The presence of ladies made pursuit of the truth impossible. In the first chapter of E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey, Rickie’s friends, who have been discussing whether the cow exists, melt away when Agnes Pembroke arrives unheralded. They found the rituals of male gallantry and female coquetry, the melodrama of courting a mistress, or the saunter to the brothel nauseating. “Out of the window,” wrote Keynes to Duncan Grant in 1912, “I see Rupert [Brooke] making love to her—…taking her hand, sitting at her feet, gazing at her eyes. Oh these womanisers. How on earth and what for can he do it.” Nor did they warm to the plain-speaking, plain-looking, bluestocking. They were not prepared to make life a choice between bores and whores.
F.R. Leavis used to ask sarcastically how was it possible that Lytton Strachey imposed himself upon his contemporaries and debased the Cambridge ethos. There is a simple answer. Strachey’s personality was overpowering. His biting intelligence, his extreme cleverness, his genius for ridicule subdued such forceful characters as G.M. Trevelyan or even Bertrand Russell. When Keynes or Virginia Woolf wrote letters to Strachey, you sense they were trying to win his approval and ward off his ironic comments. Keynes’s letters to Strachey actually imitate Strachey’s tone of voice. On the other hand, Strachey’s letters to Keynes resemble those of Madame de Merteuil to Valmont in Les Liaisons dangereuses. Pursuing at Oxford an old Eton flame, Bernard Swithinbank, Keynes reported “things ended in only a semi-embrace.” By return of post Strachey wrote, “How you can throw away your opportunities in the way you do I can’t conceive. Glances, imaginations, half embraces—really. I give you up!…I really did hope there would be something fine;—and then your ‘nerves gave way.’ Pooh! You’re a maniac.” Keynes replied: “My dear, I have always suffered and I suppose I always will from a most unalterable obsession that I am so physically repulsive that I’ve no business to hurl my body on anyone else’s.”
Strachey, angular, spindly, piping-voiced, was even less attractive physically than Keynes. He was passionate rather than romantic and the victim of his own rationalism. So when in love he almost invariably suffered. The trouble between the two friends started when Keynes began to make off with adorables whom Strachey had at last persuaded to reciprocate his love. There had been Arthur Hobhouse and now there was his cousin Duncan Grant who, like the girl who can’t say no, was always falling in and out of love with all and sundry and causing havoc among his friends. Despite the fact that his own affair with Grant had petered out, Strachey’s jealousy festered. He first filled Keynes with remorse by behaving with great generosity; and then, like Madame de Merteuil in the famous 159th letter, he struck. “Quand j’ai à me plaindre de quelqu’un, je ne le persifle pas; je fais mieux; je me venge.” He nicknamed Keynes Pozzo di Borgo, ridiculed him, spread malice, called him lascivious, insensitive, incapable of true love, a “safety-bicycle with genitals.” By poisoning the rest of Bloomsbury against Keynes, Strachey with unerring aim struck the jugular. For what Keynes wanted even more than sex was affection.
Strachey’s power to make Keynes miserable was displayed again during World War I. Bloomsbury disapproved of the war though they were not technically pacifists. When a volunteer army became impossible to sustain, they objected to being conscripted, though those fit to fight agreed to do noncombatant work. Keynes shared their views but continued to work long hours at the Treasury trying to save the pound from collapse. He was optimistic and continuously wrong about the duration of the war; he began to move in the world of the Asquiths, of Garsington, enjoying taking £25 at bridge off dowagers who could afford to lose when he could not. Bloomsbury grew alarmed at these symptoms of worldliness but they disapproved even more of what they judged to be Keynes’s double standard. Early in 1916, Strachey cut out a press report of a militaristic speech by a cabinet minister and put it on Keynes’s breakfast plate with a comment “Dear Maynard, why are you still in the Treasury?”
Skidelsky’s analysis of Keynes’s state of mind is admirable. Keynes was to write to Grant at the end of 1917 when Lansdowne’s proposals for peace talks had been rejected, “I work for a Government I despise for ends I think criminal.” As the war continued, as crises at the Treasury succeeded each other, and as his friends needled him, the conflict of obligations left Keynes exhausted and irritable. It would have been easy for him to float away from Bloomsbury on his social and official success, but his intimacy with them as he relaxed at weekends never diminished. Skidelsky is right to judge that Keynes went to Versailles carrying a burden of personal guilt with him, hoping to make reparation but despondent of the outcome from the first.
It was at this time that Keynes developed a reputation for arrogance—“that satyr Keynes greedy for work, fame, influence, domination, admiration,” whose manner Lady Ottoline Morrell thought “bordered on the insolent.” It was a manner that was to infuriate American officials in the First as well as the Second World War. He laid down the law on any subject and was unscrupulous in committees. “He handled statistics,” wrote Dennis Proctor about Keynes at the Treasury in the Second World War, “like india rubber and used his sharp, but not bitter tongue, to overwhelm his opponents; he…would maintain opposite theses with equal virulence in two simultaneous correspondences; he would rend a colleague for carrying out a policy which he himself had forced on him a month or two back.” Walking on the Downs one morning David Garnett remarked how the wind was carrying the sound of the guns across the Channel; impossible, said Keynes, sound travels not on the wind but through the ether; and when Garnett persisted, retorted, “Bunny says the Cambridge physicists are wrong about the diffusion of sound.”
Lloyd George often appears to have been more in the right than Keynes when they crossed swords because the minister wanted to use British resources to manufacture more munitions and put bigger and better-equipped forces in the field. Keynes had the less heroic role of pleading that British commerce and industry must work to provide dollars to purchase American food and goods. Until America declared war, more than once it looked as if Britain would go bankrupt. Keynes appeared to be defending the kind of Treasury reasoning that he was later to pillory.
These disputes were insignificant compared with the efforts to obtain a just peace settlement and his denunciation of those who thwarted them. As a comparatively junior official he had little chance of influencing affairs; Lloyd George disliked him; and the long months in Paris during which he watched reason and justice defeated time and again left him ill with “rage and misery.” Robert Skidelsky easily rescues him from Etienne Mantoux’s well-known attack in which he argued that Keynes’s denunciation of the Versailles Treaty encouraged appeasement and undermined French and British resistance to Hitler. Keynes’s case on the folly of reparations is unanswerable and his indictment of double-dealing by the Allies with the German government sustainable. In a sense, Keynes predicted Hitler—or rather the breakdown in Germany of confidence in capitalism and the international order. One could as well say that The Economic Consequences of the Peace saved the Western Allies after 1945 from the revanchist policies of Morgenthau and Stalin and prepared the way for the emergence of the European Community. Thwarted as he was over the penal terms set by the US for sterling convertibility and the American loan to Britain in 1946, Keynes’s ghost must have rejoiced over the Marshall Plan.
His book on the Versailles Treaty was, of course, a polemic and it matched the polemic Strachey had published the year before. Eminent Victorians was a polemic against Victorian Christianity, imperialism, public-school education, and the impulse to exploit other human beings as Florence Nightingale did, no matter whether the cause was humanitarian. Strachey believed that those were the evils that had brought about the First World War and degraded European civilization. He and Keynes were both indicting the political ethos of their time. But by its nature a polemic cannot be history and Skidelsky skates as quickly as he can over the thin ice of historical judgment. For Keynes it only required Wilson to be less hypocritical, Lloyd George less venal, and Clemenceau less cynical for all to have been well. He never considered the political and social forces that surrounded his three villains.
If Lloyd George was the prisoner of the Conservative party which he had to keep sweet if he were to remain prime minister, Clemenceau, an exceptionally open-minded Frenchman married to an American wife, was the prisoner of the whole of France, which had lost twice as many soldiers in the war as Britain, and whose northern provinces were devastated. Keynes never displayed much understanding of foreign countries or of the American constitution. He thought as a technocrat not as a diplomat. He could not follow his friend Smuts who, like Lloyd George, hoped by diplomacy and through the League of Nations to undo the worst mischief of Versailles; in the days of Stresemann and Locarno there seemed to be much in this policy. Nevertheless, Keynes was right in predicting that political adjustments by themselves were worthless. He foretold that the economy of Europe could never recover in the era of war debts; and it was this that in the Thirties was to destabilize parliamentary democracy throughout Europe.
Those who want to take the story further should turn to Charles Hession’s one-volume life, which is agreeably written and particularly skillful in making clear to the layman the shift in Keynes’s concepts, leading first to the Treatise on Money and then to the General Theory. Most of the best anecdotes are included, but on dreary matters of fact the reader should be wary. (R.A. Butler was never master of Pembroke College though his father was; C.R. Fay was not an old Eton but an old King’s friend; and I blinked a bit to find a comment on Sheppard I had made in an unpublished paper quoted out of context and hence becoming misleading.)
If Skidelsky considers that to understand the young Keynes we must realize he was homosexual, Hession believes that we cannot understand his politics, his interests, even his use of language without accepting it. Surely it is significant, he says, that Keynes calls those who love to possess and hoard money disgustingly “morbid”: was this not the word commonly used to describe homosexuals and was it not used in revenge—here the argument becomes tortuous—by Edward Carpenter to describe money-minded womanizers? Why did Isaac Newton hold such a special fascination for Keynes? Was it not because Newton too had a “dreadful secret” he concealed all his life?—not just the secret that he could no longer believe in the Trinity but his secret motive for employing clever young men to bring out new editions of the Principia. After this it’s no surprise to be told that the critical view that Keynes, this aristocrat of Eton and King’s, took of the British establishment is only comprehensible if we realize that as a homosexual Keynes was an outsider—or perhaps an outsider insider. There really are other less speculative reasons why at different times members of the British upper middle class become appalled by the complacency and sterility of the Establishment.
Nevertheless, Hession surmounts a difficulty which faces anyone who writes Keynes’s life. Many pages must be spent on Keynes the economist. They should be comprehensible to the general reader and at the same time hold him as he watches how Keynes beat his ideas into shape. Yet he must not be allowed to lose sight of Keynes’s personality and how he went about the mass of other activities that occupied his attention. Hession has a genuine talent for writing analytical narrative, and the best part of his book is the account of the way Keynes became a Keynesian beginning with his attack on Churchill for returning Britain to the gold standard, continuing with the Treatise on Money, and going on to the disputes, the parting of the ways with old friends such as A.C. Pigou, Hubert Henderson, and Dennis Robertson, and the formation of new alliances of younger friends as he struggled to construct his General Theory.
The “Circus” was a small group, composed of Richard Kahn, James Meade, Piero Sraffa, and Joan and Austin Robinson, who met without Keynes and provided him with tools and ideas for cracking specific problems. The Depression as it gathered in depth and gloom convinced him that the capitalist system, which he had come to regard during the Twenties with ever greater distaste, could yet be made to work if its goals could be changed and its economic assumptions stood on their head. He began to work with ever greater intensity. Once he talked with Joan Robinson and Kahn all day, and on another accepted humbly that Kahn had proved his “important discovery” of the week before a mistake.
He became exasperated only when former colleagues could not, or as he thought would not, follow his reasoning. Perhaps Hession does not quite bring out the personal drama. Dennis Robertson had acquired the position of keeper of Keynes’s conscience. Unlike Keynes he was a scholar as well as an economist. Having first questioned the basis of the General Theory, he ended by denying that it was really a break with the orthodoxies of Marshall and Pigou. In the end Robertson accepted a chair in London to get away from the dispute; but although Keynes praised his work in Washington and he returned to the Cambridge chair, he died embittered and broken by the fierceness with which his opponents waged warfare. Hession describes the five years that Keynes was in labor, until with Kahn as a midwife he was finally delivered of the child in 1936. As an account of the emergence of a new theory, of the false trails, blind starts, and eventual subjugation of intractable material, Hession’s description reminds one of James Watson’s account of the discovery of the structure of DNA.
Money fascinated Keynes. He never spent it without justification and according to rules. Bloomsbury resounded with stories of his stinginess. Wine was never served for lunch at his Sussex farm. “Would you believe it? Not one drop of alcohol appeared,” Strachey wrote to Carrington. “Il gran Pozzo is now immensely rich…and water, water everywhere. Such is the result of wealth.” College servants were paid no more than the going rate, and when the literary scholar George Rylands decided to pay a shilling to repair a tap in a house occupied by a poor old crone he was rebuked on the grounds that it was not for him to dispense charity from the funds of a sacred trust for learning, especially since the tenant’s lease did not provide for repairs. He was as strict with himself. When on holiday with Sebastian Sprott they were stoned by shoeshine boys who considered they had been paid less than the going rate for polishing their shoes. Sprott suggested the hail of stones might stop if they paid a little more. Keynes replied: “I refuse to be a party to debasing the currency.” He would not allow the Fellows of King’s to salve their consciences by making donations to a myriad of good causes from college funds as they do now. Keynes believed in giving every so often one overwhelmingly generous donation to one good cause.
But his hospitality to the young at King’s was sumptuous, and even before he made a fortune he frequently did good by stealth, giving money or books to impoverished students. He weighed and calculated his gifts very differently from Strachey who, when at last his writings brought him money, said of his loves that he would like to throttle them with luxury. But it was this refusal to give way to spontaneity that enabled Keynes, as he grew richer, to set up for life Duncan Grant and others to whom he was bound by ties of affection. The stream of donations, always to people or enterprises, took up considerable time. He loved business. What other men regarded as drudgery, he transacted in a flash, and passed from one set of tangled papers to another with no sign of fatigue.
Charles Hession is wonderfully skillful in weaving in the astonishing number of activities in which he was engaged: his work as the bursar and fellow of King’s; his personal speculation and investment policy; his somewhat less successful management of an investment trust of which it was said that, when he fell out with his partner Oswald Falk, he would sell the shares each morning which Falk had bought the previous afternoon; his prolific contributions to political pamphleteering and technical discussions of economic and public problems; his work on committees in Whitehall, which mounted until he was negotiating on behalf of Britain the creation of the International Monetary Fund, lend-lease, and the unpopular postwar American loan; and his concern for the arts which he thought the state ought to foster. This concern did not mean writing high-sounding letters to newspapers. It meant persuading government to finance what is now the Arts Council by which the state was to support the arts. It also meant building a theater in Cambridge and running it by meticulous monthly inspection of the accounts, and financing on a shoestring galleries and stage productions. The art for which he did most was that which brings design, music, drama, and dance together—the ballet.
Diaghilev’s company had stunned London before the war, and just before it ended Keynes met one of the stars. Lydia Lopokova might never have made it in the Maryinsky at St. Petersburg. Her body did not suit the top romantic roles in the white ballets. But her technique was impeccable and if her exuberance, according to Ashton, made her dance sometimes off the beat, her gaiety, gift for mime, and her incomparable elevation suited Diaghilev’s modern ballets. When other dancers could not believe she could tackle roles such as Princess Aurora or the Lilac Fairy, she astonished them. “It was the grace, pathos, entrancing cleverness, the true comic genius…which made the chief impression,” wrote Osbert Sitwell. “Her face, too, was appealing, inquisitive, bird-like,…the personification of gaiety, of spontaneity, and of that particular pathos which is its complement.” She “danced with an incredible, contagious gaiety,” said Marie Rambert.
Soon after Keynes met her she ran away both from the company and from her husband, whom she had married in Minneapolis when on tour. Two years later she surfaced in London and soon was living with Keynes. Bloomsbury heaved. Strachey called her a half-witted canary, Virginia Woolf was predictably malicious, Vanessa Bell genuinely alarmed. Maynard was part of her landscape and she could not endure the interruptions of this chatterbox as she painted each morning. The rest of the circle were more amused. For all their criticism of him, his friends wanted to keep Keynes to themselves; they had never thought of him making an exogamous marriage. Yet Keynes, expressing all the time his doubts to his old friends, became to his bewilderment ever more enthralled.
Why did he fall? Keynes was not a congenital homosexual. His psyche and his physique were both bisexual. The conventions of his education and friends inclined him toward men; but when during the war supply was curtailed but demand remained inelastic, his rate of interest rose to a prohibitive level. Others in Bloomsbury such as James Strachey or Gerald Shove had married and now he was to find that a jolly girl like Barbara Hiles could unfreeze his assets. He did not want an intellectual or anyone whose thought processes resembled his own. As Austin Robinson said, “If she had been less than first-rate, he would have despised her. If she had been first-rate, he would have broken her heart. All first-rate economic theorists have been egocentrics. They put the pursuit of truth far above the pursuit of friendship and have no thoughts of wounds they might be inflicting.” Marriage for him meant relaxation and support. He dispelled Lydia’s madcap tendency to bolt by his tenderness and his gaiety—“he gave gaiety to life,” she said; and she in turn did everything for him, chose his shirts and ties, and after his coronary defended him against friends and colleagues who would have exhausted him. But a mere slave would have bored him, and she never did. What she thought and said was unpredictable. She astonished him and everything astonished her; the spring flowers, people’s faces, above all the dotty situations human beings find themselves in.
Part of her charm lay in her language. She had no intention of mastering English. Her letters to Keynes lay undiscovered at Tilton until after her death. “Your fountain pen speaks such delightful things when I read it I have a smile inside and outside of me…. Very tender at the same moment exotick kisses.” “To-night I will rest and take a bath as I believe my feet are dirty.” “The audience the high breed of Mayfair…. So many women in the theatre were pregnangt one of them…the daughter of Lord Curzon. She had a very big head gear but I was not taken in and looked on her stomach of 9 months instead. Your complete dog L.” “…I rambled without umbrella,…water dipping into my face, neck, etc., most exhhilirating. Elizabeth Ardens would be bankrupt if people knew that they walk with advantage in the rain, and I bought another moth-bag to celebrate what? I don’t know; there is a force in my argument, inwardly, but no thought.” “Well, Lank, you see how well I am, that I write as early as birds make love in the spring. Your Loo-Poo.”
Her indiscretions made her famous. At a dinner given by Cordell Hull she was heard to say to her neighbor, “Two men—yes—I can see they have something to get hold of. But two women—that’s impossible. You can’t have two insides having an affair.” One of Keynes’s hobbies was farming and although he would discourse on the merits of dairy shorthorns as dual-purpose cattle, he was not one to dress for the part of a farmer: his one concession to the soil was to wear brown shoes with his blue pin-stripe suit. But he acknowledged his obligations to his neighbors by occasionally giving a garden party: only to hear his wife complain to some dignitary about the harvesters, an insect which English summers breed: “…These barristers, they bite you, they get on top of you, they even go to bed with you.” In a heat wave in Canada she climbed into an icebox; and indeed extremes of dress and undress came naturally to her. Sunbathing stark naked among the raspberries in Sussex, wearing three overcoats and several head-scarves in winter.
Her nephew, Milo Keynes, has brought out a volume of reminiscences about her as he did about his uncle.2 Uneven and overlapping as the contributions are, they give an unforgettable impression of what she was like, and those by her niece Polly Hill and Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter Henrietta Couper are among the best. She was, of course, an old trouper. She never hesitated to say of a dancer that her line was not pure, and anything slack or unprofessional brought funny and devastating comment. But she was fanatically loyal to old colleagues. And respectful. She pulled an old hat out of her bag and crammed it on when she went to call on Karsavina: “I put it on out of respect.” “Let her alone,” she said in defense of a nymphomaniac dancer. “She has an irritable womb.” What she said could be moving. “Nijinsky…. His soul had holes in it. But when he danced the holes were healed.”
The first time I met her I inquired after Keynes, who was still recovering from his heart attack. “Poor Maynar’ he has had accident. He sat on radiator yesterday and burnt his two halves.” When I married we lived in Cambridge above her apartment. She would sit after dinner in her paneled room, all lights blazing, staring out into the darkness because she detested drawn curtains; and she would talk about the Imperial Ballet School and shot sly little glances when she told how Keynes wooed her. For ten years she mourned Keynes, sometimes wearing his clothes. After that, so she said, she never thought of him. Life had to go on.
It went on for thirty-five years during which she became more and more like a Russian peasant. “Every day,” she said, “a little bit of me flies away like a bird.” Finally her memory went: “Nessa dead? Ah well, she had to die. Dear Duncan we all love him. There is nothing more to be said about him. We love him and that is enough….” “We all of us grow old…. Veins come between the fingers here and there. It is an insult to show veins in the theatre. But the veins come: age comes. We all grow old, very old; and then we die.”
July 19, 1984