Thursday, July 30, 2015

Of Mad Lords and Archaeologists' Wives

Mrs. Marie Beazley, Harry Bloomfield, 1923
Collection of the Classical Arts Research Centre, 
Faculty of Classics, Oxford University.

I seem to be on something of a portrait jag this summer; I do hope you'll forgive me.

My discovery of this charming lady stems from reading just now what seems to be an increasingly rare phenomenon: an entertaining, well-written book of social history.  Oh, I've been plowing through a number of such tomes, some mentioned herein, but while publishers keep churning out stories of fascinating people in interesting times, something all too often seems to be missing in the actual writing - a spark, some sign of élan, at times, alas, even much of a trace of judicious editing (remembering that the last one I reported on almost accomplished the remarkable feat of making Alice Roosevelt Longworth seem dull).

That, I'm glad to report, is never a problem with the delightful The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother, and Me, by the deft and unfailingly penetrating Sovka Zinovieff.  Capaciously subtitled An Aristocratic Family, a High-Society Scandal, and an Extraordinary Legacy, the book promises a great deal and delivers more.

In her teens, the author slowly learned that she was part of a most unusual family; one grandmother was a White Russian princess who turned Red and became a booster of tourism to the Soviet Union, while on the other side, her grandfather was a notorious figure of the '30s, the Mad Boy of the title.  He was one Robert Heber-Percy, a charming, feckless, frequently excessive sort of male Professional Beauty of the kind of who existed only in the rarefied world of the British upper classes between the Wars.*  It was through him that she received the Extraordinary Legacy: Faringdon House, the extravagant and enchanting Georgian country house that once belonged to Lord Berners.  And therein lies the tale.

Such a story - of behavior both bad and noble, of long country weekends, large meals, artistic dabblings ranging from the creation of ballets at Sadler's Wells** to the furnishing of Italian villas - runs the risk of falling into too-familiar tropes of writing on English eccentrics.  Indeed, while Lord Berners is lesser-known (and Heber-Percy, at least to me, only the vaguest of names), the book is replete with familiar names, from the hostesses of the Roaring '20s like the Ladies Emerald Cunard and Sybil Colefax to biography stalwarts such as the Mitfords and Sitwells, and of course the inevitable Bloomsberries make their usual appearances.  Even so, the story never lags, nor does it neglect its own central figures, several of whom (including the author's mother and grandmother) are not otherwise part of the public record to the extent that the large cast of characters who swirl around them were.

Of all the supporting zanies and eminences who pass through the story, though, I found myself most interested in Marie Beazley, the wife of an Oxford archaeologist and longtime friend of Lord Berners.  Here, almost as vividly as Mr. Bloomfield, Miss Zinovieff paints her picture:

"...a mysterious woman with 'iridescent blue hair ... very black oblique eyes, a long Oriental nose and the curved lips of an Archaic goddess.'  She was Jewish, wore overwhelming eastern perfumes, cooked unfamiliar Levantine dishes with rose petals and pistachios, and played Chopin on the piano with great feeling.  Though Harold Acton adored her, Mrs. Beazley was to some rather a figure of fun; such exoticism was a step too far for tweedy Oxford.  There was talk of her décolleté, her formidable nose, and even a little moustache, not to mention the tame goose that followed her around (and later died after eating the Daily Mail)."

Now that I've seen her portrait, I see that Zinovieff seems to have captured her admirably, and doesn't she look just the sort of person who'd brighten up a summer party at a beautiful country house?

In any case, if you have any interest at all in losing yourself in the stories of a set of people who were highly unorthodox, frequently startlingly narcissistic, often badly behaved, but in the end all surprisingly endearing, I can't recommend this book too highly.  One signal virtue, on top of the strength of the basic strange tale, is the author's consistently clear-eyed perspective.  She frankly acknowledges the rancid anti-Semitism that threatens to undercut even the most charming of her protagonists, and she is far firmer than most writers at keeping on the hook such problematic personages as the unrepentant Fascist (if not outright Nazi) Lady Diana Mosley (whose status as the renegade and probably most beautiful Mitford often gets her some slack she very little deserves).  She's also quite good at filling in around the edges of the Great and the Good, letting us know the extent to which they relied on a firm foundation of nannies, drivers, cooks, and various factotums who were often as interesting and worthy of consideration as their supposed betters (her tales of Miss Proll, the Danversische housekeeper she inherited along with Faringdon House, are hilarious, if not nightmare-inducing).

Finishing a book, of course, always raises the troubling question of what comes next.  A recent visit to a bookstore - an actual, old-fashioned, paper-filled emporium - proved to be of little inspiration, so for the moment I've fallen back on an old favorite.  It's been years, I realized, since I visited Riseholme, having gotten into the habit of diving right into Tilling, which really is mid-story when you think about it.  I'd forgotten who much I did like poor ill-fated Peppino, and what fun it was to see Daisy Quantock flounder about with her Guru and the village fête.  So, at least for the next day or so, that's sorted.  What are you reading?

* The bizarre Stephen Tennant was another; Cecil Beaton might have wanted to be one, but had the disadvantage of both practical talents and a distinct lack of the requisite lissome good looks.

** Berners was accomplished in a number of the arts, but none more than music.  Some measure of his circle of friends can be gleaned from the starry assemblage gathered when he first got the idea, almost at a whim, of staging one of his composition as a ballet - while the composer himself designed the costumes and sets, it was based on a scenario by Gertrude Stein, Frederick Ashton handled the choreography, and the leads were danced by Margot Fonteyn, Ninette de Valois, and Robert Helpmann, all under the musical direction for Constant Lambert.  Of the result, Stein wrote, " is very sad and everybody has to laugh and that is very nice." I'm sure it was.


  1. You may well have missed this. A fascinating lifestyle, indeed. Jx

    PS I think I would also "die after eating the Daily Mail"...

    1. Indeed I did - isn't it a marvelous read?

      Unlike the DM, which is bad enough to read, let alone devour...

    2. My feelings on the Daily Mein Kampf are also well documented. Jx

  2. I've been reading an old book by one Mrs James de Rothschild about Waddeston Manor.
    Sadly, there is nothing in it like that fabulous portrait of Mrs Beazley's turban up there!

    1. Ah, but what Waddeston lacked in decadent debauchery is makes up for in opulence... A wondrous place. jx

  3. I was thinking of dear Lucia, especially in the first books where her studied eccentricities are more pronounced, and here we all wind up in your closer.

    I'm reading a collection of Alice Munro short stories I started a while ago, but her style is so decided, I can only keep it up a few stories at a time.

    1. "Decided" is exactly the word for Miss Munro's writing, and, too, have only ever managed it in limited doses (excellent as it can be).

      And the Riseholme books really area good fun - they're broader than those that follow, but set most of the major themes in motion, so that the subsequent stories are in some ways increasingly masterful variations. It's all richness, though, and as always a great joy.

  4. It's so nice to know I'm not alone in my enjoyment of dear, dear Lucia and friends. The sort of summer reading that brings summer when needed, even in the dead of winter.