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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.