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.
The next year marked a new turn in his life. He met Robert Heber Percy, a young man of exceptional beauty, who was only twenty and came from an upper-class country family. He rode to hounds, was violent and uneducated, disrupted parties, constantly broke Berners’s precious belongings. He was, Berners thought, “like a young panther.” He joined a cavalry regiment and was asked to resign when he came back in white tie from London, missed the early morning parade, and calmly ordered himself breakfast in the officers’ mess. He became known as the Mad Boy. He and Berners had fearful rows and endless adventures, but Heber Percy was to remain at Faringdon for fifty years, inheriting the house after Berners died.
He was no doubt a species of gold digger but an uncalculating one. He ran risks in his relationship with Berners. He even married and had a daughter. But the marriage did not last long; on the whole he preferred sleeping with men. The young barrister and fellow of All Souls John Sparrow was one of his lovers. Berners put Heber Percy in his camp girls’ school as a madcap called Millie who arrives driving a milk cart and immediately demands buttered eggs and a peach. Why not a cup of coffee and a sandwich? “Oh anything for a quiet life,” saidMillie, and began turning cartwheels round the room. Heber Percy did in fact once ride into the house on his horse with no clothes on.
Berners and Heber Percy hardly ever went to bed together. What Berners wanted from him was not sex but laughter. Indeed the Wiltshire house was devoted to what Nancy Mitford (who portrayed Berners as Lord Merlin in The Pursuit of Love) called “shrieks.” When a guest opened a closet in his bedroom he found painted on the door “Prepare to meet thy God.” The dogs wore necklaces, and the guests had to be prepared to be teased. Berners heard that Cecil Beaton, staying overnight, had been asking which bedroom Heber Percy occupied. So he changed rooms and when the expected tap on the door came well after midnight, Beaton was confronted with Berners in a nightcap saying, “Oh Cecil, this is so sudden.” Another of his successes was his method of emptying a compartment in a railway carriage. You read a newspaper upside down and take your temperature every few minutes. The other passengers will invariably move to another compartment.
In the Thirties more specimens gathered in the rock pool at Faringdon:Gertrude Stein and Salvador Dali—Surrealism naturally caught Berners’s fancy—and a kindred spirit from the past in Max Beerbohm. He got to know the rising stars in British ballet, and Constant Lambert and Frederick Ashton inveigled him into writing music for a light confection called A Wedding Bouquet, with Stein providing a spoken commentary. In 1939 another ballet, Cupid and Psyche, met, as usual, with glowing press reviews (“The ayes had it”—The Times). It ran for three performances. Meanwhile the Betjemans, who lived nearby, began to play a part in Berners’s life. Penelope Betjeman was the daughter of Field Marshal Lord Chetwode (known to John as Woad, the substance used by the ancient Britons to paint themselves). The Field Marshal was not pleased with his son-in-law—“The fellow’s house hasn’t even got a brushin’ room.” Penelope used to bring her gray mare Moti to tea at Faringdon—the horse had exquisite manners.
Inspired by her, Berners wrote his novella The Camel, published in the Collected Tales. Aloysius, a vicar, and Antonia, his wife, hear the doorbell ring in the night. Standing outside the door is a camel. She pleads to keep and ride him. The camel falls in love with her and obeys even her unspoken wishes. He frightens an admiral’s horse so that the admiral falls off (an admiral in real life had opposed Berners’s building a folly); an impertinent know-all is called Beaton. Antonia had admired a dowager’s fur coat. The coat is later torn from the dowager’s shoulders and deposited by the camel on Antonia’s doorstep. Aloysius is deceived into thinking that the church organist is making advances to Antonia, when in fact the organist’s poems are addressed to a chorister called Antony. The organist disappears, but at the village fête the camel appears and drops his corpse in front of the dignitaries. Aloysius, who had shot him, commits suicide, and Antonia and the camel ride off into the twilight.
Four of the other short novels included in Collected Tales are also fantasies. The least successful is about Cleopatra having surgery upon her nose in order to entrap Caesar. Another is about a composer who at a mysterious party meets a Madame d’Arc who believes herself to be a reincarnation of Joan of Arc. Through her he meets a female trombonist of apparently prodigious power, and he engages her to blow a long loud note before he brings in the orchestra to play the final chord. Just as the première is about to begin he discovers that the trombonist is a fake and the noise is produced by an electrical recording. The concert begins; the Queen Mother is present; the trombone note sounds—and never ends. The amplifier has jammed. Madame Jeanne d’Arc pulls out the wires and is electrocuted, once again burned to death.
Far less fantastic is the story of an odious wife who talks sickening dog-language to a lap dog called Mr. Pidger. She and her husband are due to visit his uncle, who has made a will leaving them his house and fortune. He is known to detest dogs, won’t have one in the house, but she insists on smuggling Mr. Pidger into her room. Inevitably the uncle discovers Mr. Pidger. The dog bites his ankle and he gives orders that they are to leave at once. It is known that he has since made a new will, but when shortly afterward he dies, the new will cannot be found. They return to enjoy their inherited property. Mr.Pidger begins to scratch about in the garden. The dog discovers a tin box containing the new will. In the train going back to London the exasperated husband, now disinherited, hurls Mr.Pidger out the window. His wife tries to divorce him. Why, he asks, “are these loathsome beasts known as the friends of man?”
It is because they flatter his foolish self-esteem in a way that no other animals do…. They often end by dominating their owners…. The havoc [vermin] cause is only material while in the case of dogs it is both material and spiritual.
Berners tells the tale with Saki-like venom for lap dogs and their fawning mistresses.
Berners enjoyed provoking his friends. Lady Colefax was a generous and kindly woman but she always had to be first with the news of whatever was the latest event. It was said of her that when she reached heaven and Saint Peter asked her if she had read the Bible, she replied, “I read it in proof.” She pursued celebrities remorselessly. Soon after Churchill became prime minister in May 1940 she got a note sent by Berners inviting her to dinner, “a tiny party for Winston and GBS [Shaw]…. There will be nobody else except for Toscanini and myself….” The address and signature were illegible. Was it Berkeley or Belgrave Square? Desperate to be there, Lady Colefax rang everyone who might provide a clue and enable her to reach this pinnacle of social success.
With the Sitwells Berners was in almost constant trouble. When he and Peter Quennell brought out a book of pictures of their circle, Osbert Sitwell wrote a seven-page letter of complaint. Cecil Beaton complained about the use of his name in The Camel. So did Harold Nicolson when he found himself portrayed as Mr. “Lollipop” Jenkins and described as “an enfant terrible who was growing middle-aged and slightly pompous.” He and Berners did not speak for five years.
Nicolson appeared in Berners’s novel Far From the Madding War, which was set in Oxford. The characters were transparent. The heroine Emmeline was modeled on the young Clarissa Churchill, who was later to marry Anthony Eden; Penelope Betjeman appears again, bossing everything and everyone in sight; and there is a composite portrait of Isaiah Berlin and the curious professor of Oriental religion at Oxford, Robin Zaehner. Berners included a self-portrait of himself as Lord Fitzcricket, “a stocky little man” who “had now become completely bald, and when he was annoyed he looked like a diabolical egg.”
The talk is astonishingly faithful to the Oxford gossip of those days:you can hear the exact tone of voice in which the witticisms are delivered. There is also an almost serious theme, namely that war consists of destroying everything of beauty, which is why Emmeline’s war work consists of picking apart a rare and valuable fourteenth-century piece of German tapestry. War, in fact, should prevent anyone taking anything seriously. Emmeline makes it plain that she takes no pleasure in her war work and despises friends who enjoy driving ambulances or deciphering enemy messages.
There is only one incident in the book. The vamp among the dons’ wives seduces a notorious boor of a professor called Trumper, choosing of all places the Oxford Museum, where the massive skeleton of a saurian provides cover. The Provost of Unity (C.M. Bowra) phones Emmeline. “I’ve got a very funny piece of news for you…. Mrs. Trumper has hanged herself…. You don’t think it’s funny? How extraordinary…. I thought that you, at least, had a sense of the comic.” Berners made an acute comment on Bowra—that he was really born to be a man of action, “an eagle, but he has succeeded in deliberately transforming himself into a parrot, a charming, wise and fascinating parrot.”
Mark Amory considers First Childhood Berners’s best book, a minor literary masterpiece. It took Berners three years to write, whereas his other books were knocked off in a few weeks. It is a book about unhappiness but written without rancor or self-pity. The trouble is that, since he wrote, the story he tells has become overfamiliar, almost the stock in trade of young English writers between the wars. His two volumes of reminiscence pale beside those by writers of similar background: for instance Cyril Connolly’s evocation of his time at St. Cyprian’s and Eton in Enemies of Promise; or Robin Maugham’s of his experiences at Eton and at the hands of his sadistic father, who became Lord Chancellor under Neville Chamberlain, and of his more famous uncle, Somerset Maugham, cynical and scarcely less cruel.
I myself prefer Far From the Madding War. It set the tone for Connolly’s wartime magazine Horizon. There is the same determination not to glamorize the war and to proclaim the supremacy of personal relations and art above politics. I defend this preference, not because the critics applauded Berners’s mild audacities, but because Evelyn Waugh wrote Randolph Churchill that “Berners has written the dullest book yet seen.” Waugh was consumed with jealousy of any possible rival, or even of any success that a friend might have had. But, of course, Berners’s squib cannot compare with Put Out More Flags.
Both men wrote about the same world and the futile side of the war, but Waugh’s humor is devastatingly serious. He regarded the world in which he and Berners moved—its jokes, its malice, its relentless desire to be amusing and amused—with an Augustinian conviction of original sin. The friends of Berners were so agreeable, so loyal, so charming, but they were aboriginally corrupt. Their tiny relative advantages of intelligence, taste, good looks, and good manners, he said, were quite insignificant. Berners never permitted himself to think about such things. Lord Fitzcricket declared, “I never think about anything for any length of time. Thinking about frivolous things sometimes gives me pleasure, but when I think about serious matters I get discouraged. The only solution is to have something to do that stops me thinking.” The book ends with Emmeline saying, “Oh dear! If only one didn’t have to think.”
Mark Amory wisely does not moralize or bother to place Berners in some pantheon that would go back to Congreve. He tells the story in masterly fashion and has provided a barrow-load of comical ephemeral happenings. Was Berners an eccentric? Not exactly. The true eccentric does not know or care if he is one; he is oblivious or contemptuous of the conventional. Berners knew what he was and invented eccentricities. His eccentricities were calculated. When he built the folly, a tower, at Faringdon it was intended to tease his neighbors. “The great point of the Tower is that it will be entirely useless,” he said.
He had talent. Virginia Woolf summed him up when she referred to Berners’s being accepted as a serious composer after only four lessons in counterpoint by the musicologist Donald Tovey. “He had,” she wrote, “an astonishing facility…. Suddenly, last year, all his pleasure in it went. He met a painter, asked him how you paint;… and copied an Italian painting, brilliantly, consummately, says Clive Bell. Has the same facility there: but it will come to nothing he said, like the other.”
Berners went on to the end, enjoying Sybil Colefax’s gaffes and Daisy Fellowes’s malice. His friends ranged from Diana Mosley, now out of prison but an unrepentant fascist, to Aneurin Bevan, the famous left-wing socialist and Labour cabinet minister. In his last illness Penelope Betjeman was always hoping to convert him to Roman Catholicism. “I don’t mind Penelope,” he said, “as long as we don’t have any of that God nonsense.” After he died Robert Heber Percy continued to live at Faringdon for a time with a gay friend. This gave Evelyn Waugh the chance to make a characteristically offensive remark to Diana Mosley: “Has there ever been a property in history that has devolved from catamite to catamite for any length of time?” But no. Heber Percy bequeathed Faringdon to his granddaughter, who lives there to this day.
October 7, 1999