Anatomy Lessons

The contrast between two autobiographical writers whom I hold in reverence is never clearer than when they are contemplating Rembrandt’s painting of The Anatomy Lesson in the Mauritshuis.

W.G.Sebald, in Rings of Saturn, contemplates the picture through a palimpsest of recollections and bodily sensations as he lies in a featureless Norwich hospital . We are taken  through layers of his consciousness, as he thinks of the Norwich doctor, Sir Thomas Browne, and wonders whether he was present at the lesson, or indeed whether he is depicted in the painting. It appears that Sebald, the consciousness drawing these apparently random thoughts together, is giving nothing of himself away, that his narrative, on one level all about himself and his experience of exile in England from Germany, is only semi-present.

Yet by the end of this hypnotic

book, mysteriously, we have learnt to know him (to use the evocative German phrase). No wonder he has spawned so many dozens of imitators, though it must be said, as it was originally said of another, “within that circle none durst walk but he”, and the Sebald imitators merely serve to illustrate whatever the mysterious “it” is which we find in his pages.

If we stand today before the large canvas of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson in the Mauritshuis we are standing precisely where those who were present at the dissection in the Waaggebouw stood, and we believe that we see what they saw then: in the foreground, the greenish, prone body of Aris Kindt, his neck broken and his chest risen terribly in rigor mortis. And yet it is debatable whether anyone ever really saw that body, since the art of anatomy, then in its infancy, was not least a way of making the reprobate body invisible. It is somehow odd that Dr Tulp’s colleagues are not looking at Kindt’s body, that their gaze is directed just past it to focus on the open anatomical atlas in which the appalling physical facts are reduced to a diagram, a schematic plan of the human being, such as envisaged by the enthusiastic amateur anatomist René Descartes, who was also, so it is said, present that January morning in the Waaggebouw. In his philosophical investigations, which form one of the principal chapters of the history of subjection, Descartes teaches that one should disregard the flesh, which is beyond our comprehension, and attend to the machine within, to what can fully be understood, be made wholly useful for work, and, in the event of any fault, either repaired or discarded. Though the body is open to contemplation, it is, in a sense, excluded, and in the same way the much-admired verisimilitude of Rembrandt’s picture proves on closer examination to be more apparent than real. Contrary to normal practice, the anatomist shown here has not begun his dissection by opening the abdomen and removing the intestines, which are most prone to putrefaction, but has started (and this too may imply a punitive dimension to the act) by dissecting the offending hand. Now, this hand is most peculiar. It is not only grotesquely out of proportion compared with the hand closer to us, but it is also anatomically the wrong way round: the exposed tendons, which ought to be those of the left palm, given the position of the thumb, are in fact those of the back of the right hand. In other words, what we are faced with is a transposition taken from the anatomical atlas, evidently without further reflection, that turns this otherwise true-to-life painting (if one may so express it) into a crass misrepresentation at the exact centre point of its meaning, where the incisions are made. It seems inconceivable that we are faced here with an unfortunate blunder. Rather, I believe that there was deliberate intent behind this flaw in the composition. That unshapely hand signifies the violence that has been done to Aris Kindt. It is with him, the victim, and not the Guild that gave Rembrandt his commission, that the painter identifies. His gaze alone is free of Cartesian rigidity. He alone sees that greenish annihilated body, and he alone sees the shadow in the half-open mouth and over the dead man’s eyes. We have no evidence to tell us from which angle Thomas Browne watched the dissection, if, as I believe, he was among the onlookers in the anatomy theatre in Amsterdam, or indeed what he might have seen there. Perhaps, as Browne says in a later note about the great fog that shrouded large parts of England and Holland on the 27th of November 1674, it was the white mist that rises from within a body opened presently after death, and which during our lifetime, so he adds, clouds our brain when asleep and dreaming. I still recall how my own consciousness was veiled by the same sort of fog as I lay in my hospital room once more after surgery late in the evening. Under the wonderful influence of the painkillers coursing through me, I felt, in my iron-framed bed, like a balloonist floating weightless amidst the mountainous clouds towering on every side. At times the billowing masses would part and I gazed out at the indigo vastness and down into the depths where I supposed the earth to be, a black and impenetrable maze. But in the firmament above were the stars, tiny points of gold speckling the barren wastes. Through the resounding emptiness, my ears caught the voices of the two nurses who took my pulse and from time to time moistened my lips with a small, pink sponge attached to a stick, which reminded me of the Turkish Delight lollipops we used to buy at the fair. Katy and Lizzie were the names of these ministering angels, and I think I have rarely been as elated as I was in their care that night. Of the everyday matters they chatted about I understood very little. All I heard was the rise and fall of their voices, a kind of warbling such as comes from the throats of birds, a perfect, fluting sound, part celestial and part the song of sirens. Of all the things Katy said to Lizzie and Lizzie to Katy, I remember only one odd scrap. I think Katy, or Lizzie, was describing a holiday on Malta where, she said, the Maltese, with a death-defying insouciance quite beyond comprehension, drove neither on the left nor on the right, but always on the shady side of the road. It was not until dawn, when the morning shift relieved the night nurses, that I realized where I was. I became aware again of my body, the insensate foot, and the pain in my back; I heard the rattle of crockery as the hospital’s daily routine started in the corridor; and, as the first light brightened the sky, I saw a vapour trail cross the segment framed by my window. At the time I took that white trail for a good omen, but now, as I look back, I fear it marked the beginning of a fissure that has since riven my life. The aircraft at the tip of the trail was as invisible as the passengers inside it. The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery for Thomas Browne too, who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond. In his thinking and writing he therefore sought to look upon earthly existence, from the things that were closest to him to the spheres of the universe, with the eye of an outsider, one might even say of the creator.

Sebald, W.G.. The Rings of Saturn: 1 (pp. 15-19). Random House. Kindle Edition.

But now, turn to Simenon’s long autobiographical novel, Pedigree. It was Gide who persuaded Simenon to publish it as “fiction”. It is relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. It appears to start in a totally random manner in Liege, at the beginning of the 20th century, with a a very dull insurance clerk called Desire, and his even duller wife, who gives birth in the early stages of the narrative. Only at about the stage we meet here –  where, once again  Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson comes into play, do we realize what she has given birth TO! She has given birth to a pair of eyes and a pair of ears which belong to the novelist, and as he grows, the little monster – Simenon himself – is noticing everything. Whereas Sebald distances himself, apparently, from his narrative, and  gives the historical background of the painting, for Simenon, it gives the scornful child, in this scene little more than three, the grown-up capacity to cut his petit-bourgeois family down to size. The only pictures on the walls of the boring uncle  were free gifts from Dutch biscuit manufacturers, of which the Rembrandt is one!

The first half of the book happens in the years leading up to the First World War. Simenon’s relatives, anatomized as ruthlessly as the corpse in Rembrandt’s painting, are only one quarter French=speaking Belgian. One of the grandparents is German, the other two are Flemish. Like Rembrandt, this master of the chiaroscuro came from the Low Countries, a borderland around the River Meuse, where France, Belgium and Germany meet. No wonder he felt fear and indifference mixed , as he contemplated the 20th century wars.

They had put a couple of cushions under the child, who looked all around him. He would not forget certain things which the others had probably never noticed. For instance, all the pictures in the house were inscribed with gilt lettering on the frames, for they were free gifts distributed by the leading manufacturers of biscuits, tinned goods or chocolate. Opposite Uncle Hubert’s armchair there hung a picture which was darker than the others, showing some people in black hats standing round a naked man who was a greenish yellow colour. Roger would have liked to ask: ‘What are they doing?’ It was a reproduction in colour of The Anatomy Lesson. These men in black standing round a corpse were associated in the child’s mind with the hard, grey silhouette of Uncle Schroefs, with his bowler-hat which he had taken off only to sit down at table, and with the spicy smell which filled the house, mixed with the smell of the rough wooden crates. Aunt Marthe kept stuffing things into his pockets, sometimes things which he could not eat, not only chocolate or biscuits which crumbled straight away but tins of anchovy fillets. Why did his mother take them from him? Why did she scold him when they had scarcely turned the corner of the street? ‘You mustn’t accept anything from Aunt Marthe. You must say: “No, thank you, Aunt.” ’ And this no thank you became a sort of proper name for him. ‘Nothankyou.’ Why did he have to say: ‘No thank you’? Why, when the two women were together in the bedroom or the box-room, especially the box-room, did they start crying, wiping away their tears quickly if anybody came in? And why, when they met, did they nearly always say: ‘Poor Élise.’ ‘Poor Marthe.’ Yet it was the most beautiful house in the world. When the grown-ups wanted to be by themselves, Léontine took Roger away. She was a queer girl, very thin, very flat-chested, who had a habit of squeezing him too tightly when she kissed him. She took him round the warehouses. She let him touch everything. She had taken him to see the horses; and the man who was in the yard—or in the stables when it was raining—a shabbily-dressed old man, had made him a whip, a real one, with a string which cracked. When the daylight began to fade, Élise looked at her husband and tried to attract his attention, making signs to him which everybody understood. ‘But no! It isn’t late,’ Marthe or Hubert protested. It was time to lay the table for supper. The children would be coming home soon. They were in the way. Couldn’t Désiré feel that they were in the way? For the past quarter of an hour, Schroefs had had enough. He was only just managing to restrain himself from yawning, and, now that the day was nearly over, he wanted to settle down in his corner, in front of his gas-fire, and to look through his papers, sighing all the time. Désiré believed everything he was told. If somebody said to him: ‘But no, do stay …’—he stayed! At last! Van Camp had got up, though he would have liked to stay. Everybody went towards the door. They said good night two or three times, once before putting on their outdoor clothes, then on the landing, then again downstairs. ‘Come this way.’ The shop door was opened a little way, revealing the violet shadows of the street, the silence outside, the trams in the distance. ‘A week on Sunday, then. Thank you, Marthe. Désiré, carry the child. We’ll be able to walk faster like that.’ A few steps. ‘They made him eat three pieces of tart again.’ Désiré did not understand, did not manage to feel indignant or offended. ‘I’m sure Hubert’s going to say that you come on purpose to smoke his cigars.’ ‘I smoked two.’ ‘Let’s buy a bit of ham for supper. The fire will have gone out.’ The child, on his father’s shoulders, saw the gas-lamps go by almost on a level with his head. In the Rue Puits-en-Sock, he saw, one after another, all the dimly lit shops which stayed open on Sunday and would stay open until ten o’clock at night, with the shopkeepers eating behind a curtain or behind the glass panes of a back room, and goods of all colours in the windows. And he saw the tram which suddenly emerged from the shadows of the Place de Bavière. ‘Désiré, mind the tram!’

Simenon, Georges. Pedigree (New York Review Books Classics) (pp. 159-163). New York Review Books. Kindle Edition.

Brideshead Revisited


Evelyn Waugh’s preface to Brideshead Revisited, written fifteen years after its original publication, speaks of it as a book concerned both with ephemeral and with eternal matters. Ephemeral, as “a souvenir of the Second War”. Written at a time when English country houses appeared to be in irreversible decline, the book was seen by Waugh, when he looked back, as an elegy for a lost aristocratic England whose stupendous seats and well-crafted estates would surely be made obsolete by the coming of the egalitarian postwar ethos.

The eternal theme of the novel, by contrast, was, Waugh believed, “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters”. It is hard to imagine a more durable or unchanging theme. The whirligig of Time, however, brings in strange reverses. As Waugh wrote in his 1959 preface, such houses as  the fictitious Brideshead today, if they had survived the mid-twentieth century demolitions – would  have been restored by loving and expert hands and visited annually by tens of thousands of tourists. Nor is the aristocracy of Great Britain, however you define it, extinct, as might have been predicted in 1944. True, unelected peers no longer sit in the House of Lords, but the upper class has not gone away. Many of the landed families are richer in the early twenty-first century than ever before, and they continue, many of them, to occupy the “stately homes of England”.

The Roman Catholic Church, to which Waugh was so fervent a convert, has, by contrast, changed in ways which he would have found bewildering. Even before he died in 1966, having attended  Easter Mass according to the old rite, Waugh was heartbroken and enraged by the liturgical changes of his adopted church. The remarriage of divorced Catholics, however, was at that date unthinkable. Today, the Pope himself has suggested that there are circumstances in which it might be permissible, and emphasised that there are many grounds for questioning the notion of the “validity” of a marriage.

Charles Ryder, the narrator of this story, makes an injudicious marriage while being a Protestant agnostic, and then falls in love with the Catholic Lady Julia Flyte, the sister of his best friend from Oxford days . The love of Julia and Charles, however, is doomed by the operation of divine grace. Julia has made a reckless marriage herself, to the financier, politician and wideboy, Rex Mottram. They married outside the church. In Waugh’s story, Charles and Julia could never make a licit Catholic marriage unless both their partners were dead.

“The worse I am”, Julia says, in one of the great set-piece speeches of this baroque novel, “the more I need God. I can’t shut myself off from his mercy. This is what it would mean, starting a life without him… I saw today there was one thing unforgiveable – the bad thing I was on the point of doing [ie marrying Charles in a registrar’s office] that I’m not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s”.

There are many Catholics in the world today who have divorced and remarried. Some of them have done so in defiance of the Church’s canon law. In the case of many  others, the mercy of the church has enabled them both to practise their faith and to enjoy the love of their spouse. The situation of Charles and Julia in today’s church would surely enable them to live together and to receive the sacraments. Julia, after all, married a man – Rex Mottram – who already had a wife living, and so, by the strict tenets of canon law she was not in fact married at all. She was quite free to marry Charles in a Catholic ceremony, were his first marriage to be annulled – as was Evelyn Waugh’s. Since, like Waugh, Charles had married before becoming a Catholic, and in circumstances which made it clear he did not have a Catholic view of the sacrament of marriage, he would surely today have been granted an annulment.

So, Brideshead Revisited is a period piece. The aristocratic way of life which Waugh believed to be doomed, still continues, albeit in modified form. The seemingly immutable Holy Mother Church has shifted some of her sterner stances.

This in no way spoils our enjoyment of the novel , which many would consider Waugh’s masterpiece. Those of us who love his work, and reread it often, must often have felt torn between appreciation of the brittle comedies of his youth and young manhood, and the august achievement of the Sword of Honour trilogy, one of the undoubted works of literary genius, in any language, to emerge from the Second World War. The early comedies, owing so much to Ronald Firbank, but so distinctively themselves,  make us laugh aloud. The sports day at Llanabba Castle in Decline and Fall, the oafish customs inspectors in Vile Bodies, confiscating Dante’s Inferno because it sounds foreign and therefore pornographic, the hatefulness of the Connolly children in Put Out More Flags, these are crystalline comic vignettes which are cruelly and perfectly constructed. The Sword of Honour  books retain the comedy (who can forget Apthorpe’s thunderbox?) but follow the themes of all great literature, love, war, death, with unmatched seriousness.

Brideshead Revisited, lush, colour-splashed, romantic, comes between these two bodies of work. It is Waugh’s Antony and Cleopatra. It is his richest, and most passionate book. : passionate about male love, about the love between men and women, about the centrality of beauty in human life. Charles Ryder, the only son  of an eccentric widowed father (one of Waugh’s finest comic creations) goes up to Oxford in 1923. In many ways, as he says, it is an Oxford unchanged since the days of John Henry Newman in the 1840s. Ryder’s blameless, dull life resembles that of Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall  . When a drunken revel in the quad outside his room culminates in Lord Sebastian Flyte vomiting through his open window, we might suppose we are in that first novel’s identical world of farce. The incident, however, is as imaginatively decisive as Robert de Saint Loup’s introduction of Proust’s narrator to personal knowledge of the Guermantes family. Falling in love with Sebastian, and adopting the louche ways of his decadent “set”, Charles was seen by the peevish first reviewers of the book, above all  by Edmund Wilson in the United States and by  J.B.Priestley in England, as a mere social climber. Charles, however, like Waugh himself, is not a common arriviste, like Proust’s Mme Verdurin. He was a romantic, and like Yeats, “chose for theme/Traditional sanctity and loveliness”. The characters in this novel, enchanted pierrots in an exquisite painted baroque theatre, move solely in scenes of beauty. In Oxford, “everywhere, on cobble and gravel and lawn, the leaves were falling, and in college gardens the smoke of the bonfires joined the river mist, drifting across the grey walls”. In Venice, where Charles and Sebastian visit the disgraced exile, Lord Marchmain, “I was drowning in honey”, and his sightseeing expeditions with Lord Marchmain’s mistress Carla allow him, “a night at the Corombona palace such as Byron might have known, and another Byronic night fishing for scampi in the shallows of Chioggia”.

When Ryder grows up, if that phrase is entirely appropriate for this celebration of immature and raw emotional life, he makes his name as a painter of country houses. (In the great ITV adaptation of the novel,  in 1981, directed by Charles Sturridge,they used the paintings of the sublime Felix Kelly; but one senses that Ryder also owes something to Rex Whistler) . Some of the book’s purplest passages are love songs to Brideshead simply as a work of architecture. Turning from the feminine clutter and piety of Lady Marchmain’s sitting room to his “discovery of the Baroque”, Ryder finds himself luxuriating in “the coved and coffered roof, the columns and entablature of the central hall, in the august masculine atmosphere of a better age”. The most beautiful of the “set piece” evocations of place, and its rooted history, is put into the mouth of the dying Lord Marchmain. The approach of the Second World War compels the old reprobate to return, with Carla, to England, and, his wife being dead, he can come back to his ancestral lands at Brideshead. “We were knights then, barons since Agincourt, the larger honours came with the Georges. They came the last and they’ll go the first, the barony goes on. When all of you are dead, Julia’s son will be called by the name his fathers bore before the fat days, the days of wool shearing and the wide corn lands, the days of growth and building, when the marshes were drained and the waste land brought under the plough, when one built the house, his son added the dome, his son spread the wings and dammed the river”…

The whole book aches with the sense of an aesthetically literate, militarily honourable past being encroached upon by a cruder, demotic age. Ryder’s junior officer, Hooper, in whose baffled company he “revisits” Brideshead during the war can not see the point of the great house at all. “It doesn’t seem to make any sense – one family in a place this size. What’s the use of it?”

As the soldiers bury their litter before breaking camp, Ryder imagines a future archaeologist finding “a people of advanced culture, capable of an elaborate draining system and the construction of  permanent  highways, overrun by a race of the lowest type”. Hooper, with his flat Midlands accent, became “a symbol of Young England”. Ryder finds him not merely personally irritating. He is possessed by rage at the thought of the First World War in which the flower of the aristocracy died in the battlefields of Flanders and northern France:  “these men must die to make a world for Hooper; they were the aborigines, vermin by right of law, to be shot at leisure so that things might be safe for the travelling salesmen”. Worse even than Hooper, however, because so much more powerful, was Rex Mottram, Julia’s husband, the vulgar money man, with no sensitivity to things of the spirit, no taste, no notion that his thrusting embrace of the future with all its brashness will destroy something of ireeoverable value. Even the art of painting, which Ryder so patiently and passionately pursues, is overwhelmed by the cruel march of time. Cordelia Flyte, one of the most deftly-drawn figures in the book, (the convent girl not really at home in the cloister or in the world) asks the narrator, “Charles, Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it?” “Great bosh”. “Oh! I’m so glad. I had an argument with one of our nuns and she said we shouldn’t try and criticize what we didn’t understand. Now I shall tell her I have had it straight from a real artist and snubs to her”.

I single out Cordelia as a character deftly drawn, but the novel bursts with the life of so many unforgettable figures. They all ring true. Even the walk-on parts such as the Quartering Commandant, who regrets the vandalistic behaviour of the soldiers billeted at Brideshead, or the priest who administers the last rites to Lord Marchmain, Fr McKay, Glasgow Irish, are drawn with exquisite economy and are immediately recognizable, just as a great master of portraiture like John Singer Sargent, for example, was able to capture likenesses not only in his finished “swagger” portraits but also in sketches , using only a few perfectly sure pencil lines.

Waugh’s own swagger portraits in this book, his full-blown painted figures, are without parallel in his oeuvre : above all, the two siblings, Sebastian and Julia Flyte, Charles Ryder’s two loves. It was a highwire act of prodigious skill not to make Sebastian as cloying as his malicious friend Anthony Blanche (“Antoine”) wants Charles to find him. The young Sebastian with Aloysius the teddy bear is adored by everyone – barbers, Oxford scouts, the jeunesse d’ore. The ruined |Sebastian in Morocco, eeking out an existence loosely attached to Catholic religious houses, could be equally annoying, since he possesses only what “Antoine” calls “the fatal English gift of charm” and, an even riskier quality to convey in a novel, holiness. But it would be a harsh reader who did not see why Charles loved him, just as it would be strange not to fall in love with Julia.

The suddenness with which Charles and Julia come together during the Atlantic storm, and their two happy years together as lovers, make one wish they would simply settle for a life of “sin” such as Lord Marchmain has done with  (my own personal favourite character in the novel) Carla. All Carla’s observations, about love, sex, and religious practice, deserve to be memorized. And she is that rarity in the Waugh oeuvre, a thoroughly decent sort.

Given the solemnity of the theme, “the operation of divine grace”, you might have expected Waugh’s humour to have failed him in this book, but even the hilarity of the early novels is outshone by the comic characters in this one. Charles’s father, Anthony Blanche, or the awful Samgrass take their place among the immortals with Dr Fagan and Captain Grimes. Even the figures  whom Waugh and Ryder hate – Hooper and |Mottram – are funny. And even  non-Catholics have laughed at Cordelia’s hoodwinking Rex into believing that there are sacred monkeys in the Vatican.


The Wanton Chase:Peter Quennell

At his Memorial Service in St James’s Piccadilly, Peter Quennell’s friend Sir Reresby Sitwell said that Q had bravely lived by his pen all his life, never had much money, but never had a job, unless you can count editing such periodicals as the Cornhill magazine and History Today. It was true. He once gave me some advice I did not keep – writers should not aspire to own property. Marry a woman who can afford to buy a flat or a house, but don’t get tangled up with loans, mortgages and the like. He got through five wives and a lot of houses.

Mind you, hacks were better paid in those days.  Q once said to me that  with the money  provided by writing a single review in the New Statesman before the war, you could take a woman to the Savoy Grill  and have money left over for a cheap hotel room afterwards.  Now , you’d be lucky to buy a takeaway from Wagamama for a review in one of the weeklies. I am sure, however, that there would be no shortage of women who would like to spend the evening with him.  Annie Fleming (Charteris) , during her long affair with Q, said she found his “badger paws” irresistible . He was unusual in his generation. He was sent down from Balliol for hetereosexuality – spending the night with a woman in Reading was how he described it to me.

He was a published poet in his teens, was briefly taken up by Bloomsbury – though distressed, when her diaries were published, to discover that Virginia Woolf considered him “an exiguous worm” – and he was the embodiment of what is meant by the phrase A Man of Letters.

It is true, what Reresby Sitwell said, that Q had the self-confidence to be a writer and only a writer . He was, however, riven with self-doubt and something approaching paranoia. When he was knighted, the Queen told him she had been reading him since she was a child. He realized that she was thinking of the books  produced by his parents: the meticulously researched A History of Everyday Things in England in four vols by Marjorie and H.B.Quennell. Had he been  the person who the Queen thought he was, in the mid 1980s, he would have been well over a hundred. He was suddenly panic-stricken. Was he being knighted under false pretences?

“I gather you’re friends with the Sitwells”, went on the monarch, harmlessly. He eyed her suspiciously. “Renishaw  must be so lovely at this time of year”.

“I was there only last week, ma’am”.

“Snowdrops out?”

“Yes, ma’am”.

“And the aconites?”

He agreed, before rising, as Sir Peter, and going his way. On his way out, the madly improbable thought dawned in his highly literate but completely non-botanical brain. What if it had been a trick question? What were aconites? Did they perhaps flower in autumn? Had she been trying to show him up as a fraud?

Evelyn Waugh hated PQ so much that he once came up to him in White’s and jumped up and down on his feet, the sort of bullying you would expect in a school playground, not at the hands of a distinguished novelist in his fifties in a gentleman’s club . The hatred went back to their young manhood when Q had reviewed Waugh’s first book, a biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Q, who had been at Oxford with Waugh, pretended that “Evelyn” was a woman and referred throughout his review to “Miss Waugh”.

Waugh in his journals or letters, I have not found the reference, made the fair point that Fuddy Duddy Fishface, as he called Quennell, was a better writer, technically, than anyone in his generation, but that he had nothing to write about. Although his books are mellifluous and beautifully crafted – volumes on Baudelaire, Byron,  Ruskin etc. , you never feel he was writing from compulsion. I wonder whether something got sealed off in his youth.

During a dreadful bust-up with his fifth wife, Marilyn, known inevitably as Quennell Number Five, I took Q out for dinner near his elegant house in Cheyne Row (he was a neighbour, as it were, of the Carlyles). Like many of the saddest things in his life, the row had begun with farce. He had picked up from the carpet  a rubber bone, belonging to their beloved dog, and mistaken it for a dildo. (He had a rather unsavoury obsession with women’s masturbatory habits. Maybe, like his hero Baudelaire, he should have written the Higher Porn, rather than making himself the master of  Belles Lettres).

 Over some superb turbot, paid for by my then proprietor, Q poured out the marital troubles  and said, “You see, my dear, I am weeping inwardly, but no tears will come. I was brought up in Berkhampstead (where he was a contemporary of Graham Greene) and my parents were busy , writing A History of Everyday Things. My mother had a horror of expressing emotion, and could not bear it when I  wept, at being sent to board at aged seven. I wept on my return to her, and she said it was intolerable, so during the school holidays, I was boarded with the local doctor until I had learnt to control my tears. Now – I weep inwardly. Tears will simply not flow”.

He was a fund of anecdote, some of which are contained in his two perfectly-crafted memoirs, The Marble Foot and The Wanton Chase.  I do not have them to hand, so can’t rmember if this one occurs in the books.  When he went to stay with the young Betjemans in their freezing farmhouse in the Vale of the White Horse, they had a huge Sunday lunch, at which much was drunk. He retired to bed for what was left of the afternoon, his only hope of getting warm. He was flattered, though a little surprised , when Penelope Betjeman came into his bedroom, swathed in cardies, and cuddled in beside him. Q was an amorous man but as his arm encircled Mrs Betjeman, she removed it and said in her strange upper class cockney, ‘Nyeow, Peter, wot IZ orl this nonsense about your not believing in the Divinity of Chroist”? From the depths of her cardie she produced some tracts, alas to him unpersuasive, written by a local high church clergyman.

I was so sad to miss the dinner given by our friend Algy Cluff for Q’s 80th birthday but it happened on the day my own father died. It was evidently a convivial occasion, since Q, who had enjoyed our friend’s liberal hospitality, tottered at the top of the staircase at White’s and fell down the whole flight. No bones broken and he went on to enjoy a few more years of life.

Every now and again, I find myself smiling, or even laughing, at one or another of his memories. After the incident with the “woman in Reading”, he was expelled from Balliol, and together with John Betjeman, who had also been sent down from Oxford, for idleness, the pair went to Venice. They  ate in restaurants they could not afford. They were joined by others, equally dissolute, and had a happy time, drinking and fornicating until the money ran out. In the course of their time there , a waiter in their pensione informed Q that he had a letter . Q went pale when he read it, and left the table. The others picked up the leaf of paper, where it fluttered among the grappa glasses, , with cruel guffaws. It was from the high-minded parents, Lilibet’s favourite authors  H.B. and Marjorie Quennell. “Had it not been for this  unfortunate incident at Oxford, you could by now have joined your mother and myself on our tour of the medieval castles of Wales”.

May 26th …Lord Derby

Queen Victoria’s Journals Online – you just click – are an endless source of interest and delight, and I sometimes, as a kind of SORS – click on the day’s date to see what she was getting  up to. If it is a bright, happy entry, I feel my  day will turn out OK.  If she is down in the dumps, it’s like seeing just one magpie, I fear the worst.

 It’s  May 26th today, and a glorious summer day it is.  On May 26th 1858, Victoria was at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. The Princess Royal, Vicky, had married and gone to become the Crown Princess of Prussia . Prince Albert took the first opportunity to visit her. Victoria had been receiving a visit on the Island from Albert’s brother Ernest, and from the Prime Minister, Lord Derby and discussed the composition of the Cabinet. .

Dearest Albert has left me, gone to Germany to see Vicky, & is on his way to Coburg. I feel very miserable, but am determined to be very reasonable. — A beautiful morning. — Out walking with our nephews, round by the Swiss Cottage. Talk with Ernest of his future, & the possibility of his serving as Commander, in the Yacht. — Have heard nightingales several times. — Walked about on the Terrace, after luncheon, & later walked & drove. All, so lovely, the sea so blue, the scent of the blossoms, perfuming the air. This is the finest time of the year, when nature bursts forth, & everything is so fresh & green. — Victor gone, & Lord Derby arrived for 1 night. He, the addition to our dinner. He was in good spirits, — alarmed about the Navy, — full of the Debate; the last night, there had been a most extraordinary scene. Ld Derby thinks Lord Clarendon would be very good for the Colonies, — Ld Stanley going to the India Board. Mr Gladstone was again approached, but refused. It must Ld D. said, be offered to Sir Ed: Lytton, but he is not likely to take it. —

extraordinary scene. Ld Derby thinks Lord Clarendon would be very good for the Colonies, — Ld Stanley going to the India Board. Mr Gladstone was again approached, but refused. It must Ld D. said, be offered to Sir Ed: Lytton, but he is not likely to take it. —


The Queen never quite knew where she was with Lord Derby. This was because she never came to terms with that dominant characteristic of upper class Englishmen, facetiousness. He framed everything as if it were, not a joke exactly, but something to smile or laugh about.

I think Lord Derby is my favourite among Queen Victoria’s premiers. Hawkins’s two volume biography is certainly one of the very best political biographies I have ever read, and it has the appropriate title, The Forgotten Prime Minister.

It is strange that Derby is forgotten since it was he, in 1867, who brought in the Second Reform Act, one with far greater   reach than the famous one of 1832. 1867 really extended the franchise and paved the way to every male in Britain having the vote. So, although a Tory, Derby brought to pass the  Liberal dream. He also holds the record for being the longest-lasting Leader of the Conservative Party.

His twin passions, outside the world of politics, were the Turf and Homer. The former goes without saying. It was his grandfather who instituted the Derby at Epsom in 1780. Unlike our present monarch, Queen Victoria never saw the point of the races. In his spare time as Prime Minister, Derby translated the Iliad. In his preface, he wrote –

‘In the spring of 1862 I was induced, at the request of some personal friends, to print, for private circulation only, a small volume of “Translations of Poems Ancient and Modern,” in which was included the first Book of the Iliad. The opinions expressed by some competent judges of the degree of success which had attended this “attempt to infuse into an almost literal English version something of the spirit, as well as the simplicity, of the great original,” were sufficiently favourable to encourage me to continue the work which I had begun. It has afforded me, in the intervals of more urgent business, an unfailing, and constantly increasing source of interest; and it is not without a feeling of regret at the completion of my task, and a sincere diffidence as to its success, that I venture to submit the result of my labour to the ordeal of public criticism.

‘Various causes, irrespective of any demerits of the work itself, forbid me to anticipate for this translation any extensive popularity. First, I fear that the taste for, and appreciation of, Classical Literature, are greatly on the decline; next, those who have kept up their classical studies, and are able to read and enjoy the original, will hardly take an interest in a mere translation; while the English reader, unacquainted with Greek, will naturally prefer the harmonious versification and polished brilliancy of Pope’s translation; with which, as a happy adaptation of the Homeric story to the spirit of English poetry, I have not the presumption to enter into competition. But, admirable as it is, Pope’s Iliad can hardly be said to be Homer’s Iliad; and there may be some who, having lost the familiarity with the original language which they once possessed, may, if I have at all succeeded in my attempt, have recalled to their minds a faint echo of the strains which delighted their earlier days, and may recognize some slight trace of the original perfume.

Numerous as have been the translators of the Iliad, or of parts of it, the metres which have been selected have been almost as various: the ordinary couplet in rhyme, the Spenserian stanza, the Trochaic or Ballad metre, all have had their partisans, even to that “pestilent heresy” of the so-called English Hexameter; a metre wholly repugnant to the genius of our language; which can only be pressed into the service by a violation of every rule of prosody; and of which, notwithstanding my respect for the eminent men who have attempted to naturalize it, I could never read ten lines without being irresistibly reminded of Canning’s

“Dactylics call’st thou them? God help thee, silly one!”

I don’t think I’ll wade through Lord Derby’s Iliad, however. For an English version, until my daughter Emily finishes hers, I’ll stick to Alexander Pope. It may not be Homer’s, but, it belongs to that select band of books, which include Scott-Moncrieff’s Proust and the Authorized Version of the Bible, which , if not better than the original, are works of literature in their own right.

Monica Jones

The look of astonishment, and hurt, on the young person’s face was unforgettable. We were at a lunch, forty years ago, given by Larkin’s publishers, Faber, to mark the first appearance of his collection of journalism, Required Writing. The great poet was at a nearby table.

“Philip had a nice write-up this week in the New Statesman”, said this innocent, to the formidable bespectacled lady on his right. “Did you see it?”

He was addressing his harmless remark to Larkin’s long-standing girlfriend Monica Jones, whose appearance,  was, to say the least, striking. A wide-brimmed hat,  the only headgear in the room, more suited to the consecration of a bishop in a provincial cathedral town, than to  a bohemian London publishing-office, squashed  up with caterers tables and  food. Her very full lips were glossy red. Thick specs made it difficult to make out the expression of her eyes. The rig was fancy dress, seemingly. Something between a pantomime dame and  grande dame.  Possibly even a man in drag. Mention of the New Statesman made Monica draw herself up and say, in slurred Lady Bracknell tones , “I don’t read sedition”.

The alcohol-aided grammar made the remark memorable to me. The ear wanted to supply, “seditious material”.  But she just said, “I don’t read shhhedisshun”. Obituaries said her father had been  an engineer from Llanelli, and perhaps there was something rather Welsh in her appearance, though she apparently lacked the quality observable in all other Welsh friends I’ve known – irony.

Larkin once quoted to me , with keen approval, William Faulkner’s remark when accused of being antisemitic. “It’s true, but, remember, I hate everyone else as well”.

The words might have been applicable to Faulkner, but about Monica Jones, they were the simple truth. She hated her pupils at Leicester University, where she taught English. Really loathed them. Would go on and on about how much she despised them. “You’ll never get a first, you are SECOND RATE”, she told one of them. “Even if you DID get a first, what use is a degree from LEICESTER?”

It was at Leicester, as a young don, that she met the poet, who had come to work as assistant librarian. “He looks like a snorer”, she remarked to a colleague, and she soon found out when she began to sleep with him. Like many religious people – and she was a faithful churchgoer, unlike Larkin, –  she loved sex. (Needless to say, church infuriated her, because, rather than being Archdeacon Grantley and Septimus Harding, the clergy were all pinko blank blank blanks and the liturgy had been buggered).

 She hated Leicester itself , of course, and most of all, hated the immigrants, for whom she used all the politically incorrect words you can imagine. One of the strangest heirlooms left to the world of literature must be the little home movie she and Larkin made, singing along to a racist diatribe he had composed to fit the tune of Lilli-bolero. Why did they want to preserve it? Two fingers to a priggish posterity?

Above all, she hated herself, and however much gin she swallowed, she could not die. In the lonely  fifteen years which followed her lover’s death, she lasted and lasted.

“Monica”, I said to her once, when she had rung up with one of her woebegone monologues. “Do you know what time it is?”


“It’s three o clock”.


“Three in the MORNING!”

Although she destroyed Larkin’s diaries, which might have been fascinating, she preserved the thousands of letters she had written to him. Some of them are tender expressions of love, but the great majority, I gather, are diatribes – fury at him for not committing, hatred of his other women., hatred of him for causing her heartbreak, followed by nagging – don’t forget to water the house-plants .

Towards the end of his life, she moved in to his house in Hull, and he was touchingly pleased. He had been so lonely. Unlike the other girlfriends, Monica was highly intelligent, and widely read, and they had in common a serious devotion to Oxford.  Perhaps Oxford is the one exception to the list of things she hated.  Larkin shared it. Both felt in exile in their perfectly good universities, while being embarrassed by the sloppy devotion to their Alma Mater which they (rightly) recognized was very “un-Oxford”. Meditating on the celebrated “home of lost causes…. City of dreaming spires” passage, they liked saying to one another – “Who is the most Cambridgey English poet?” The answer, which they said in chorus, was “Matthew Fucking Arnold”.

Poor Monica. She can’t have started out as a monster, when she was an undergraduate at St Hugh’s during the Second World War. If she had fallen in love with someone capable of giving her some love back? ….

His letters to her, a selection of which was edited and published not  so long ago, contain really interesting and well-turned reflections on his reading. In my new book, soon to appear and available in all good shops, I quote his take on Dickens.

Better the Dickens you know than the Dickens you don’t know – on the whole I enjoyed [Great Expectations]. But I should like to say something about this ‘irrepressible vitality’, this ‘throwing a handful of characters on the fire when it burns low’, in fact the whole Dickens method – it strikes me as being less ebullient, creative, vital, than hectic, nervy, panic-stricken. If he were a person I should say ‘you don’t have to entertain me, you know. I’m quite happy sitting here’. This jerking of your attention, with queer names, queer characters, aggressive rhythms, piling on adjectives – seems to me to betray basic insecurity in his relation with the reader. How serenely Trollope, for instance, compares. I say in all seriousness that, say what you like about Dickens as an entertainer, he cannot be considered a real writer at all; not a real novelist. His is the garish, gaslit, melodramatic barn (writing that phrase makes me wonder if I’m right!) where the yokels gape: outside is the calm, measureless world, where the characters of Eliot, Trollope, Austen, Hardy (most of them) and Lawrence (some of them) have their being. However, I much enjoyed G. E. & may try another soon.[i]

It seems to say in the papers that John Sutherland is going to write Monica’s biography. Some task if true, but maybe he will be doing an edition of their correspondence., which will, I suspect, be fascinating. Eloise to Abelard it will NOT be.

We Authors,Ma’am

Lockdown makes one lose track of time, so whether Meghan Markle’s notorious Memoirs have been ghosted yet, is something of which I am unaware. She kept journals from the moment of her encounter with Prince Harry. Something tells me that they will not compare with  Some Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, which were a deserved best-seller in happier days.

Disraeli, in his slightly bitchy way, said, “We authors, Ma’am”, when she had published the first of her published volumes.

She was the first British monarch (have I got this right?) to go into print, since James VI and I wrote his diatribe against smoking, A Counterblaste to Tobacco.  (Its sentiments would have been echoed by Queen Victoria). James VI was clever, but his writing was not literature. To find a literary British  monarch before Queen Victoria, you would have to go back to James I of Scotland, imprisoned by the English at the age of eleven in 1406, and not released until 1424. His  The Kingis Quair really is a bloody good poem in the Chaucerian/Dantean mode.  (he was an excellent King of Scotland when he was finally released. Murdered in Perth 1437).

The novelty of Victoria’s publication was that , like The Kingis Quair, a love poem, her journal  was autobiography.  She was sharing her pain – the grief for her husband Prince Albert, and her yearning for their days together on Deeside. She followed it with More Leaves. And she had it in mind to publish a third volume, a grief-stricken tribute to her love for John Brown, which the young Randall Davidson, newly appointed Dean of Windsor, was delegated by the Court to tell her to squash. If only we could find it in the archives at Windsor!

Disraeli was a brilliant novelist. Lothair is  truly sparkling example of the silver-fork school of fiction. But he was wrong to sneer at, while pretending to flatter, the Fairy, as he called his monarch. We can now read her Journals Online and, despite the fact that they were copied out and censored by her daughter Princess Beatrice, they remain one of the great diaries of our literature. Set them beside the many volumes of her published letters, and you can see that Victoria was, truly, a writer manque.

No monarch , or royal, since has shown much talent in the literary line.

My friend Peter Quennell, poet, critic, man of letters and clubman, once found himself on a tiny aeroplane in 1951, flying over to Paris . There were very few other passengers. In those days you had to fill in landing forms, answering such questions as “distinguishing characteristics” (Lord David Cecil wrote “charming smile”). One had to write one’s age and one’s sex. “What age are you going to put, Harold?” John Sparrow once asked Harold Nicolson, to receive the reply, “What sex are you going to put, John?”).

Anyhow, Peter Quennell on the plane, filling in his form. Profession?

The man in front turned round and said, “It asks for Profession. What shall OI put?”

It was the Duke of Windsor. He had lately published A King’s Story, an extremely bland account of royal tours. “Why not put ‘author’, sir?” asked Quennell.

The Little Dook, as his friends in Paris called him, laughed. “Oi LOIK that!” he said. “Oi’ll put ‘author’”.

Those of us scribblers  who have toiled in garrets all our lives , and feared

Toil, envy, want, the patron and the gaol

can never imagine how tempting and exotic non-writers believe it , to be able to describe oneself as a writer. So Meghan will soon be one – or perhaps already is. I bet she won’t think of a title as brilliant as the Duchess of Windsor’s The Heart has its Reasons. And you can bet your bottom dollar it will not be a rival to Queen Victoria.

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